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Richard Greenberg’s new play, Our Mother’s Brief Affair, should come with an advisory label: Warning, this product not intended for use by those who suffer from attention deficit disorder. Or tweakers. Or dumbshits.
Greenberg’s 10th world premiere at South Coast Repertory, like most of his others, is a dialogue-driven piece graced with very smart, self-conscious and urbane characters rattling off sparkling aphorisms, immaculately structured anecdotes and ravishingly detailed observations. Kelsey Grammer’s Frasier Crane would feel quite comfortable on this set. So would Oscar Wilde. As would those pricks who host dinner parties and dreamily muse about how the night air smells of Paris.
But talking-head plays—no matter how brilliant the language—are a tough sit for the Philistines. Not that they’re a big part of any theater’s crowd these days, but, dammit, they’re people too.
A more problematic issue with Greenberg’s play, however, is that its Big Reveal, the huge secret that lurks beneath its depths and causes a paradigm shift in the play’s concerns, feels forced and ultimately abandoned. Leaving nothing but four characters whose speech falls trippingly off their tongues, but who don’t seem to be saying anything that important.
Our Mother’s Brief Affair is aptly titled. It’s about a woman, Anna (a feisty and poignant Jenny O’Hara) who reveals to her grown children, Seth (a likeably neurotic Arye Gross, even though he looks suspiciously like Lost’s Benjamin Linus) and Abby (an equally likable, and also neurotic, Marin Hinkle) that, some 25 years earlier, she briefly sexually congressed with a man not her husband.
This news doesn’t tear this family’s world apart; by all indications, Anna’s husband was a mean-spirited prick, and her month-long affair one auburn October in New York City was as innocent and life-affirming as violating one’s oath before God can be. The family are New York Jews. They are quite liberal, quite sophisticated and, in the case of Seth and Abby, quite homosexual, therefore capable of immense sympathy for anyone who feels trapped by the reigning social order. In their cases, it’s sexual identity, in their mother’s, a loveless marriage.
So, Seth and Abby soak up the details and admissions of their mother, occasionally commenting on her lover’s bad prose and obsessing over what it means for them, but really it’s just Anna delivering the news.
But Anna’s secret doesn’t stop with her adulterous confession. It turns out the guy with whom she was spending her afternoons in a small hotel off Central Park is about as heinous and reprehensible a man that this family of smart, New York, ultra-liberal Jews could possibly imagine. A man whose very name sends spasms of loathing through their beings.
His name? Don’t worry about it. Unless you’re a red-diaper baby or an expert in Cold War-era trivia, it probably won’t register. But to two fortysomething New York card-carrying liberals, the fact that their mother consorted with a man whose actions led to one of the major cataclysms of the American left in the 20th Century is beyond belief.
Unfortunately, the cataclysm that Anna’s possible lover participated in can’t be named here. This is the Big Reveal in Greenberg’s play, and when it comes, the entire tenor of the piece shifts from a nostalgic stroll down a naughty part of one woman’s memory lane, to one set in the fast lane of moral outrage and indignation. To spoil it removes the relative shock of the play’s lone detonation.
The bombshell elevates the play’s tension and gravitas, and also affects an interestingly stylistic shift. Characters break the fourth wall, a quick history lesson ensues and it feels that, 45 minutes after beginning, we’ve achieved lift-off.
Things quickly settle back into more talking heads—not that the words these heads are saying, or the way they’re delivering them, are dull or drab. The ensemble is uniformly excellent and, again, Greenberg’s writing is so sharp, descriptive and powerful that he makes even the most mundane observations feel vibrant and fresh.
But it all comes off as the type of thing that would be best read at your own leisure, rather than watched in a theater for 90 minutes. Especially when it’s intimated that Anna’s dramatic secret could very well be just a delusion tied into another secret she’s carried for most of her life. That makes the play less an examination of a major event in American history than a desperate attempt by a woman whose life is slipping away to make herself feel relevant and important.
It should feel heart-throbbingly poignant. But it comes off as curiously unsatisfying and even cheap.
Greenberg is a very smart writer who writes really smart plays with really smart characters. But, as evidenced by the ending of Our Mother’s Brief Affair, even a playwright of his considerable stature is capable of shooting a blank.
Our Mother’s Brief Affair at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Wed., 7:30 p.m.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through May 3. $20-$70.
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