No one plays Jewish mothers with secrets better than Linda Lavin. It’s a specialty she’s been honing for decades, from her stoic Brooklyn mama in Broadway Bound (1986) to her unlikely Upper West Side hedonist in The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife (2000), her merry soon-to-be-widow in The Lyons (2011) and now the sharp-tongued Anna in Richard Greenberg’s piquant Our Mother’s Brief Affair. You recognize these women right away, because Lavin plays them so hilariously to New York Jewish type: She has a cartoonist’s control and economy of line. But to recognize them is not, it turns out, to know them.
Anna is an elderly woman with incipient dementia, so her adult children—Seth (Greg Keller), a single gay obituary writer in New York, and Abby (Kate Arrington), a librarian with a girlfriend and child in California—are not sure what to believe when she tells them that she cheated on their father when they were kids. (Seth’s initial diagnosis: “Seventy years of bad novels meet a squadron of frizzled synapses.”) But Anna’s memories of her infidelity in the 1970s, reenacted in flashbacks on a park bench, are flush with feeling and detail, down to the “costume of sophisticated adultery”—a Burberry trenchcoat, a smart scarf—that she wore to meet her lover (John Procaccino). Seth resists seeing his mother in this reddish light, but she has little time or patience for that. “Don’t be a little boy,” she tells him. “Even mothers have sex; that used to be how they became mothers.” (If this admonition itself has a whiff of the maternal, well, c’est la famille.)
Greenberg’s writing is elegant and keenly epigrammatic, and the identity he assigns to Anna’s lover at the end of Act I is a first-class punch line: a historical left hook that will be especially appreciated by the cultural cohort of Manhattan Theatre Club subscribers, but hits a wider nerve as well. As Anna’s life dims before her, she is haunted by the difference between her youthful potential—”I was movie-star pretty, or so they said”—and the years of dull, bruised compromise that followed. She wants it to be known that she had a story, with the modern glamour that comes with being touched by scandal.
Directed with canny ambiguity by Lynne Meadow, Our Mother’s Brief Affair leaves you to wonder how much this scandal has been retouched. But there is no doubt as to the casual mastery that Lavin, at 78, brings to the part. Shifting in and out of the past, elevating one-liners to three-dimensionality, she brings a lifetime of command to the stage. She owns this part and claims it like nobody’s business but her own.
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Broadway). By Richard Greenberg. Directed by Lynne Meadow. With Linda Lavin. Running time: 1hr 55mins. One intermission.
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