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Review: 'Our Mother's Brief Affair' at South Coast Rep

April 12, 2009 |  3:45 pm

Arye Gross and Jenny O'Hara Sometimes a protagonist transcends her play. And sometimes she just dominates it, bullying the other characters as though they were stick figures.

Meet Anna, the blinding focal point of Richard Greenberg’s “Our Mother’s Brief Affair,” which opened Friday at South Coast Repertory. She might not be the stereotypical Jewish mother, but she sure knows how to subtly inflict guilt while stealing all the oxygen in the room.

Bursting with astringent opinions, snap judgments and unasked for pearls of wisdom, Anna is the kind of parent who draws her children magnetically to her while driving them nuts with her hot and cold personality. And as played by the marvelous Jenny O’Hara in a delicious mix of diffidence and pride, dottiness and common-sense clarity, this maternal Sphinx is the main source of enchantment in Greenberg’s latest, a play that captivates with its gleaming language and wit even when it ultimately disappoints on the level of plot.
A Long Island veteran of meshugas, Anna has watched her twins, Seth (Arye Gross) and Abby (Marin Hinkle), grow up, start careers and come out of the closet. Her unsatisfying marriage, a tale of terminal incompatibility, ended in a widowhood in which old recriminations never die. And with senility creeping upon her, all she has left are her few precious secrets — and the chance to let her middle-aged kids know that for a little while she was more than just a bitter housewife.

Our Mother's Brief Affair Greenberg introduced the character of Anna in the first act of his 2000 play “Everett Beekin,” another of the playwright’s many SCR premieres. Anna’s fate has been altered, but the new drama continues to explore the way one generation is forced to puzzle out the origins of the damage it has perplexingly inherited.
Here, Anna’s adult children, both of whom are stalled personally if not professionally, are intrigued to discover that there may be more to their mother than her suffocating unhappiness. Seth, an obit writer who’s gay and loveless, is obsessed with his mother’s stories about the affair she had while he was taking viola lessons as a teen at Juilliard. The identity of the man (played by Matthew Arkin, who also takes on the role of Anna’s husband) is one of the mysteries Seth tries to unravel, coaxing out each sketchy installment of the tale with a doggedness that suggests he’s hoping to find some explanation for his own barren existence.

To aid him, Abby has flown in from Laguna Beach, where she lives with her lesbian lover and child. A New York neurotic residing in a costal paradise, she laments the lack of “apocalyptic intimacy” in Southern California and seems just as incapable of ordinary contentment as her brother. But then these are the products of a woman who looks back at the Depression and the Second World War and says “life was so lovely then.”

The play, directed by Pam MacKinnon, takes place on park benches (Sybil Wickersheimer designed the nonrealistic set) in a fluid back-and-forth between the recent past and 1973, the year of Anna’s affair. Dressed in her “costume of sophisticated adultery” — a Burberry raincoat and smart scarf — and wearing a dated hairdo that must have been thought chic way back when, O’Hara’s Anna is at once advanced in years and erotically reborn again.

“Our Mother’s Brief Affair” bears many of Greenberg’s signature touches — stylish narration, hyper-articulate banter and a preoccupation with the way the present perennially misreads the past. It’s also replete with ethnic humor and a sympathetic knowledge of the gulf separating parents and children, who have hard time imagining each other outside of their familial roles.

Yet like much of the author’s work, you can’t help feeling there’s a better version of the play locked inside all the cleverness. Greenberg is always finding escape hatches from conventional storytelling, but the complications he introduces to lift his drama into more expansive realms often subtract from the more compelling interest of the characters and their heartbroken dilemmas.

Not to give too much away but the extramarital scenario Greenberg cooks up for Anna includes a few twists with a historical figure from a traitorous chapter in American history. This rather daring choice, however, feels increasingly strained, not to say tangential to the play’s central concerns. And though the ending bundles up all the contrivances with a neat thematic bow, the work might have been more satisfying had he listened harder to his protagonist than to his own brainy muse.

The cast is solid, though Hinkle has some early trouble handling Greenberg’s verbal cascades and Arkin falls into alter kocker caricature when he transforms into Anna’s husband. As Seth, Gross convincingly brings to life yet another of the playwright’s gay male characters, a guy on the border between preppy and schlepy, who’s addicted to high-gloss words yet unable to talk himself into a less isolated narrative.

But the play is mostly memorable for O’Hara’s Anna, who captures the feisty, pipsqueak frustration of a woman who before she slips into a foggy oblivion wants to let it be known that there was more to her than even her nearest and dearest suspected.

-- Charles McNulty

"Our Mother's Brief Affair," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 3. Tickets: $28 to $64.  (714) 708-5555. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.

Top photo: Arye Gross and Jenny O'Hara in "Our Mother's Brief Affair." Bottom photo: Matthew Arkin, left, Jenny O'Hara, Marin Hinkle and Arye Gross. Credit: Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times