Not even the sainted Linda Lavin can save the deeply unpleasant character she plays in “Our Mother’s Brief Affair,” a lazy play by Richard Greenberg commissioned and first produced by South Coast Rep, now being given a Broadway airing by Manhattan Theater Club. Stubbornly lacking in dramatic tension, the uneventful narrative features a mean-spirited woman who may or may not be on her deathbed, recounting a closely held secret to her disagreeable grown children.
There’s little to fault in the attractively mounted and very well cast production helmed by MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow. Santo Loquasto has designed a versatile abstract set of movable flats to shift the action from dated views of Central Park in the lushness of fall to cooler hospital scenes in the present day. Lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski’s autumnal palette of red and gold bathes this chilly memory play in the soothing warmth it very much needs.
But unlike the tenderly drawn Jewish family that Greenberg brought to life in “The Assembled Parties,” Anna (Lavin) and her twin children, Seth (Greg Keller) and Abby (Kate Arrington), are a cold-blooded bunch. Anna is in the hospital having the latest of her frequent deathbed scenes, and in case this one proves to be the real deal, Seth, the narrator, would like to leave posterity with a true picture of her vivid personality.
Although Keller makes a convincing show of being a loving son, Seth’s first attempts to define his mother’s character are less than salutary. “She could be intensely absent” … “She had a tendency to pose” … “She liked to read crap.” … And most damning: “Did I mention my mother was a cold woman?”
Daughter Abby, a sketchily drawn character propped up by Arrington’s assured performance, is so self-absorbed she seems to have no feelings one way or another for her mother. However, she did fly in from Santa Monica, which she damns for lacking the “sense of apocalyptic intimacy” one finds in New York. It’s also a really bad time to be leaving town, since she and her wife, parents of a little girl, are in the midst of a sad breakup. So that does count for being a dutiful daughter.
As for Anna herself, she’s quite vain about her looks, and rightly so. Lucky for her, Lavin also has great “gams,” and Tom Broecker has designed her a very smart version of the Burberry coat and scarf she calls “a costume of sophisticated adultery.” But the brittle wit for which she was known boils down to a few banal quips like “air conditioning is the key to civilization” and “the potato chip is nature’s most perfect food.”
Lavin’s keen acerbic wit is wasted on lines like that and on a character like Anna, who is, truth to tell, a sour woman with bitter views of everyone but herself. The actress is much perkier in flashback scenes of her brief affair with a bland, unthreatening lover played with a level head by John Procaccino. Recognizing that Anna is embarking on what may very well be her last romantic adventure, Lavin allows her to glow.
But when her lover is revealed to be a much more problematical — and probably unprincipled — person than he seems, fierce, opinionated Anna proves to have no backbone at all. “He looked like a little boy,” she says about his damning confession. “How can you not forgive a little boy?”
Not even Seth can get around that one — although references are made to the fact that Anna is suffering from either dementia or Alzheimer’s, suggesting that she might have invented the relationship itself. That ambiguous proposal is one way to end a play without plot or purpose. But dementia and Alzheimer’s are two distinctly different medical conditions with quite dissimilar symptoms, and Lavin shows absolutely no sign of either condition. Just the impression, at the end, of being a bit tired of hauling this clumsy play around on her back.