Linda Lavin is alternately sardonic and fragile in the New York premiere of Richard Greenberg’s drama “Our Mother’s Brief Affair.” Above all, the Tony winner and sitcom star wittily rules the stage at the MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, where “Affair” has just opened.
Greenberg’s imperfect 2009 play hinges on a mother’s deathbed confession to her grown children—the affair of the title. The notion of “legacy” weighs heavily in the drama, which touches on themes such as the suburban dream, and the desire, when one’s life is nearing its end, “to be known.”
Lavin’s Anna has twins, Seth and Abby (Greg Keller and Kate Arrington). Greg is a gay obituary writer in New York, and the one who takes care of mom, with her now-routine hospital visits. Abby lives with her partner and daughter in California, but flies in each time it looks as if mom may not pull through.
In flashbacks, Anna tells her kids about an extra-marital relationship she had during an autumn 30 years prior, when Seth was reluctantly studying at Juilliard. It’s routine theater fodder, until the first act skids to a halt, lights come up and the kids break the fourth wall to explain that, to the best of their knowledge, the man their mother was caught up with was of some historical significance.
Theatergoers under, oh, 40 or so, may not make the connection instantly, so make use of your cell phone during intermission and run the fellow's name through Wikipedia. As “Affair” picks back up (MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow is in firm command of the reins) another key point emerges: Anna’s story may or may not be true.
Lavin, acerbic to the point of caricature in more recent appearances (“The Lyons”), paints a balanced portrait here, as a Long Island mom who dutifully raised two kids despite being in a marriage that was never romantic.
By no means self-sparing, Anna confesses to her new lover the guilt she feels over a decades-ago action involving a family member. We’re even led to wonder if Anna has remained in her marriage as some self-inflicted punishment for this long-past sin. Yet Anna never reads as bitter; more, she’s a woman on the brink of death trying to make peace with the life she’s lived, in unapologetically human fashion. (Anna and her kids, blessedly, seem to have long-ago processed through the gay stuff.)
Keller, an exasperated but formidable foil to his mother, narrates most of the story. Arrington (“The Qualms”) is believable as the adult daughter who long ago understood she was not mom’s favorite, but her character barely seems essential. John Procaccino (Signature’s chilling “Incident at Vichy”) is very good, doing double-duty as both the secretive lover wooing Anna in the park, and Anna’s crotchety husband.
“Affair” takes the generic, and I daresay hardly earth-shaking knowledge that a parent had an affair, and throws it up against a specific political event. Whether the affair happened or not is irrelevant, and indeed, it's intentionally left ambiguous. Anna believes it did.
Greenberg (“Take Me Out,” etc.) is making a point about “scale,” that some loads we carry through life—the burdens that bring us shame—are worse than others, and that after a point we must forgive ourselves. It’s a point I'd gander he might have made more elegantly without the plot twist, but nonetheless, with Lavin leading the cast, it’s a beautifully performed play.
“Our Mother’s Brief Affair,” through March 6, 2016 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. Tickets: $70-$140. Call 212-239-6200.