In Richard Greenberg’s “Our Mother’s Brief Affair,” world preeming under helmer Pam MacKinnon in Greenberg’s familiar (10 plays to date) South Coast Rep digs, Jenny O’Hara triumphantly chomps down on the rich matriarch role as if it were a piece of ripe fruit. Mind failing but moxie intact, Anna Cantor immediately grabs interest and never lets go in her deathbed reminiscence of a long-ago illicit romance. But her present-day interactions with her grown twin children? Not so much.
Alternately cantankerous and pixilated, Anna shares her disjointed memoir from a hospital bed. But we see her on a park bench clad in Burberry trenchcoat and designer scarf, the better to act out her brief encounters with widower Phil Weintraub (a shining Matthew Arkin, whose telling cameo as Anna’s overbearing husband explains why she’s sharing coffee and confidences with a stranger in the first place).
Their love scenes, proceeding from polite chat to painful intimacy, feature some of Greenberg’s deepest, most unforced emotional writing since 2001’s “Everett Beekin” (which first introduced the Anna character, albeit with somewhat different details and tone). Even her kids’ carping from the sidelines, increasingly tiresome as the long one-act proceeds, can’t detract from the ping of shared souls as Anna and Phil dance away their pain, cheek to cheek.
The developing effect is of two simultaneous plays, with Greenberg and MacKinnon considerably less engaged by the one about the younger generation. Son Seth (a one-note Arye Gross), an obit writer who pigeonholes the dead and living alike, is essentially the same acerbic, loveless gay pundit of a dozen other Greenberg works sans variation. Ironically, when the discovery of Phil’s true identity offers Seth a genuine reason for fury, Gross has nowhere to take him, with all his self-righteous punches having already been thrown at life’s petty annoyances.
Marin Hinkle does better by brittle sister Abby in her genuine concern for Anna’s condition (Gross’ Seth seemingly couldn’t care less) and transformation during mom’s confession. But their twinship carries no more story weight than Abby’s late-in-life lesbianism and adopted child. Like the siblings’ amusing but generic quarrelsome quips to and about Mama, their plot points appear to have been retrieved from the author’s notebooks for random leavening.
But the play about Anna and her men — which would merit the title “Betrayal” had not Pinter already appropriated it — carries spellbinding resonance. Anna, it develops, has a reason for shame much less titanic than that of her lover but spirit-crushing nevertheless.
Her brief affair, hurriedly carried out during a teenage son’s heartily resented viola lessons, offers unexpected redemption, and it’s staged by MacKinnon (assisted by Lap-Chi Chu’s expressive lighting) with just the right measure of magical realism.
Greenberg details Anna’s desperate search for identity and purpose with discreet precision. And if some truth-shading and sleight-of-hand are called for to offset a lifetime of bitter disappointment, then — as O’Hara announces at play’s end in equal measures of hesitation and pride — “so be it.” It’s a strange sort of victory, memorably dramatized and beautifully acted.