Richard Greenberg’s new spin on a dysfunctional family, Our Mother’s Brief Affair, isn’t brief enough. It’s so far below the level of his other plays that the mind nearly boggles. Think about The Assembled Parties, his Tony-winning Take Me Out, any of his high-quality work. This one doesn’t seem to come from the same playwright.
Still reading? If so, I need to state that in order to specify how boring — not to say barely this side of reprehensible — Our Mother’s Brief Affair is, I’m going to have to cough up a major spoiler in a few paragraphs. I don’t see any way around it. For that, I offer the apology that Greenberg should offer us.
On an elegant (yet also boring) Santo Loquasto set featuring a few park benches, a club chair and a hassock intended to double as a hospital bed, Anna (Linda Lavin), the mom who eventually vouchsafes her titular brief affair, is being discussed in the recent present — 2003 and 2006. Her son, Seth (Greg Keller), an obituary writer at perhaps The New York Times, not to mention a gay man with dating problems, is doing the blabbing.
Anna, says Seth, hasn’t been much of a mother. His twin sister, Abby (Kate Arrington), concurs: their childhood was one of “benign neglect.”
Abby is in New York City (and at some moments during the play, Long Island) to attend to her mother alongside Seth while her female partner is on the left coast with an infant daughter, Dilys. This piece of information suggest that as Anna never makes an issue out of having two homosexual children, she qualifies as a rather accepting mother.
Anyway, most of the first act finds Anna, Seth and Abby holding sharp-edged conversations barely more interesting than watching the paint dry on Loquasto’s mottled walls, or counting the branches on the shadows of the trees occasionally projected upon those walls. Part of the problem is that both Seth and Abby are strictly two-dimensional. (Does Seth’s career account for him being so deadly dull?) As staged by longtime Manhattan Theatre Club Artistic Director Lynne Meadow, Lavin supplies Anna with three dimensions by applying a well-honed performing technique that often involves crossing and uncrossing her eye-catching gams.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Tony Kushner did something similar in Angels in America, but there’s just no comparison here.[/pullquote]
Established as a fantasist of some accomplishment, Anna lifts up the proceedings at the conclusion of the first act when she abruptly informs Seth and Abby that she’s had the affair promised in Greenberg’s title. It’s presented as something of a deathbed confession, and it involves a man she met some decades earlier in Central Park who introduced himself as Phil Weintraub (John Procaccino).
Here comes the spoiler. Yes, it might be possible only to report a plot twist involving a secret of Phil’s own and calling it a mere case of being extremely detrimental to the script. But that wouldn’t begin to suggest the extent of Greenberg’s misstep. Phil’s secret is that “Phil Weintraub” is an assumed name. His real name — ready? — is David Greenglass. That’s the end of the first act and also the beginning of the second, when Seth and Abby come downstage to fill us in on just who David Greenglass is.
When he chats with Anna, Greenglass also talks about how he’s faring and feeling a few decades after supplying the (questionable) evidence that famously tagged his sister, Ethel Rosenberg, and his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg, as Communist spies. Greenberg characterizes Greenglass as a well-meaning fellow eager to exonerate himself of any responsibility for the Rosenberg electrocutions, which to this day remain a terrible blot on American justice.
As Anna, maybe on her deathbed, and Dave, or whatever she decides to call him, provide each other with solace, Greenberg even elicits a few laughs at the Rosenbergs’ expense. Describing these passages as tasteless falls far short of the mark. Tony Kushner did something similar in Angels in America, but there’s just no comparison here.
Moreover, because Greenberg positions Anna as a storyteller, we’re primed not to buy her attenuated reminiscences of Weintraub/Greenglass. This not only doesn’t excuse the playwright’s elaboration on a fictitious Greenglass, but the audience is way ahead of the script, which only adds insult to indulgence.
As Our Mother’s Brief Affair reaches its end, Greenberg’s intentions for this sorry piece become clear. His best piece of writing — and Lavin’s most compelling performing — is a monologue in which Anna confesses to a selfish act involving one of her three sisters that haunted her throughout her life. What Greenberg is saying, then, by way of the Greenglass embroidery, is that most of us, if not all of us, need to cling to lies that get us through an otherwise difficult existence. It’s a valid observation, but surely he could have found a better way to make such a tough-minded point.
Greenberg does seed in a few amusing lines. There’s one about The New York Post of the 1970s being The New York Times for readers who weren’t poseurs. Addressing the audience early on, Seth calls Anna “nostalgic for anything that actually never happened.” This, of course, is one of the comments that set up Anna as perhaps self-delusional.
Anyone who values Greenberg’s work will want to regard Our Mother’s Brief Affair as a brief lapse and to await his next play enthusiastically. Yet it’s such a dire lapse that it’s not easy to do.