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Real or imaginary?

That question haunts ‘Our Mother’s Brief Affair’

From left, Kate Arrington, Greg Keller, Linda Lavin, and John Procaccino in “Our Mother’s Brief Affair.” (Joan Marcus)
From left, Kate Arrington, Greg Keller, Linda Lavin, and John Procaccino in “Our Mother’s Brief Affair.” (Joan Marcus)

I deeply resent when a writer reveals a significant plot twist in a review, so there will be no spoilers here. Accordingly, I apologize in advance, dear reader, for what may seem to be a coy or annoyingly vague description of Richard Greenberg’s new play, “Our Mother’s Brief Affair,” but the core development is a genuine surprise, and I don’t want to ruin that.

This Manhattan Theater Club production is directed by Lynne Meadow, who also directed Greenberg’s wonderful last play, “The Assembled Parties,” another domestic drama about a New York Jewish family with secrets. MTC has had a long relationship with the playwright, and “Our Mother’s Brief Affair” is the ninth play of his to be produced there. Greenberg seems to have written this comic drama, which just opened at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater on West 47th Street; especially for Linda Lavin, and the 70-something actress shows her appreciation by lapping up Greenberg’s archly witty dialogue with relish.

Looking trim and stylish in her trench coat and fashionable scarf, Lavin plays Long Island matron Anna Cantor with the brittle humor and perfect comic timing she is known for. Anna is from a generation of women whose job was to run a gracious home and raise successful children, and she isn’t certain how well she did that job. Her son Seth (Greg Keller) is an obituary writer and semi-closeted gay man. His twin sister Abby (Kate Arrington) has recently discovered that she is gay as well and is living in California with her partner and their child. Anna’s husband is dead, and she seems constantly on the verge of dying herself.

But unlike the mother Lavin played in Nicky Silver’s “The Lyons,” her most recent foray on Broadway, Anna is not entirely a gorgon. She certainly is judgmental, as she freely acknowledges, but she judges herself as harshly as she does her family. She has now reached an age where she wants to share stories from her life. When Seth visits her in the hospital, where she’s recovering from her latest illness, she starts to tell him about an affair she had many years ago. While the teenage Seth was torturing himself trying to learn to play the violin in Lincoln Center, his very ordinary Jewish mother was conducting a torrid romance in a hotel overlooking the park. Seth is incredulous, and he is even more shocked when he learns that his sister Abby knew all about it.

Lavin plays Anna at both stages of her life — the elderly hospital patient and the younger wife and mother — across from John Procaccino, who ably switches between her husband and her lover. Greenberg has structured the play as a series of conversations: between Anna and Seth, Seth and Abby, Anna and her lover, the kids and their mother. The identity of that lover introduces a political/historical element to the play that’s completely unexpected and may be fantastical.

That in turn opens another thematic window. How much can we trust the memories of others, or our own, when we are reconstructing the past? Is factual accuracy as important as emotional validity?

The characters of Seth and Abby are not as well developed or interesting as Anna, and it isn’t clear why it matters that Seth can’t find a partner or Abby is toying with leaving hers. Seth’s job as an obit writer is a nice touch, though, and Anna clearly is providing her son with plenty of material. She wants more in her obituary than the predictable loving wife and mother.

The second act brings more revelations about Anna’s youth in Brooklyn, and these are quite moving. They also throw a light on the connection Anna may have felt with her lover, a connection rooted in betrayal rather than passion. Lavin always is a pleasure to watch on stage, and while this may not be as successful as Greenberg’s last play, “Our Mother’s Brief Affair” delivers a lot to enjoy.

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