Seth and Abby are adult twins whose mother has kept a secret from them most of their lives. When the two siblings were in their early teens, Anna had a brief affair.  It’s only now, with the twins entering their forties, that the truth has come out.  Or is it the truth? Anna is an Alzheimer’s patient, and the tale she tells may be actual memory, or imagination, or a combination of both.

Abby reminisces about this brief affair in the appropriately titled Our Mother’s Brief Affair, the latest Richard Greenberg play to get its world premiere at South Coast Repertory. With an impeccable cast, performances here are about as good as it gets. The play itself, though, is something of a letdown after other Greenberg gems like The Violet Hour, Take Me Out, and A Naked Girl On The Appian Way.  Even a dramedy about someone with Alzheimer’s can be a bit of a tough ride, though Arye Gross, Jenny O’Hara, Marin Hinkle, and Matthew Arkin couldn’t be better in their roles, and Pam MacKinnon’s direction is first rate.

Our Mother’s Brief Affair begins as a verbal ping pong game between son (Gross) and mother (O’Hara) sitting a short distance from each other on adjoining park benches, Seth doing the recalling and Anna adding commentary.  Suddenly, Anna comes out with “Did I ever tell you about my affair?”

Seth wonders if this could be “some kind of etherized fantasy” or a “hospital psychosis.”  (The park setting represents many different locations in this memory play, including Anna’s hospital room.) When it becomes clear that his mother may indeed be telling the truth, Seth gets on the phone with twin sis. “She’s taken to claiming she had an affair,” he announces.

Throughout most of the play, Anna is dressed in a Burberry and scarf, the same “costume of sophisticated adultery she wore back when Seth was 15 and studying the viola at Julliard—and she was having her affair.  “It was one of those October days,” she remembers.  “I was just happy to be happy…and he asked if he could sit next to me on the bench.”

“He” is a similarly aged man named Phil Weintraub, an “urban gentleman” with “lovely hygiene” (she checked his fingernails), though it is not long in Anna’s recollections before she drops a bombshell.  Phil may in fact have been David Greenglass, brother of convicted spy Ethel Rosenberg, himself a spy for the Soviets. His mother’s possible romantic involvement with “a synonym for coward and sister-killer” prompts Seth to quip that by comparison “Dad has never looked better.”

But is Anna actually telling the truth or is she confusing fiction with fact?  To believe his mother or not to believe, that is Seth’s question.

For the most part Greenberg’s writing keeps this Alzheimer’s-related story from becoming too downbeat. For example, Anna deals with her son’s gayness (in fact both twins are gay) by telling him “If you’re not going to sleep with anyone, why can’t you be straight and not sleep with a woman for a change?”  Regarding the conception of Abby and her partner’s daughter: “She makes a baby the same way I make a turkey.”  

There are times, however, as when Anna suddenly turns to her children asking, “Who are you people?”, that being around this Alzheimer’s patient becomes a bit off-putting, and in 2009 it seems hard to care about whether or not Anna was sleeping with an American convicted of spying in the early 1950s.

Still, this is a beautifully directed production with a quartet of splendid performances.  Gross is great at playing a non-stereotypical gay Everyman (as he did in the indie film Big Eden) and his comic timing is flawless. O’Hara’s Anna can get on the nerves from time to time, but her work here is rich and multi-layered, at once comedic and tragic.  Hinkle makes a welcome return to South Coast Rep, following her magnetic performance in What They Have, and she and Gross share great sibling chemistry. Arkin plays two very different roles, Anna’s sophisticated lover and her foul-mouthed blue collar husband, and there’s never a moment’s doubt which is which.

Sibyl Wickersheimer’s public park is nicely designed, but a bit of a letdown after the marvelously mobile sets of recent SCR shows. Though a bit too dim at times, Lap-Chi Chu’s lighting clearly differentiates between past and present, memory and reality.  Costumes by Rachel Myers and sound design by Michael K. Hooker are both first rate.

Ultimately, this is an excellent production of a Greenberg play that may have been more interesting for the playwright to write than for a theater audience to watch.  Still, it is well worth seeing for the performances alone, and anyone who’s dealt with an aging parent can certainly relate.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 

–Steven Stanley
April 12, 2009
                                                       Photos: Henry DiRocco

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