Aisle View: The New Linda Lavin Play

Linda Lavin in Our Mother's Brief Affair. Photo: Joan Marcus
A character steps out of character, just before the first act curtain of Our Mother's Brief Affair--the new Richard Greenberg comedy from the Manhattan Theatre Club--and says "for those of you who are thinking, oy vey, again with the Rosenbergs!, our apologies."

Apologies are in order, yes. Here we have another geriatric comedy--of the genre popularly known as "the Linda Lavin play"--pleasantly steaming along, courtesy of heavy lifting by Linda Lavin herself. Suddenly, a big mystery emerges; without said big mystery, there'd be little upon which to build the second act. To wit: the fellow playing the man with whom the mother of the title is having the affair, says "I'm David Greenglass."

From a portion of some audiences, I suppose, this might get a random gasp; thirty years ago, it might have been especially effective. Today, not so much; Linda Lavin's response--or, rather, the response of the main character in the new Linda Lavin play--is to ask whether he's David Greenglass from P.S. 12, "the nosepicker."

But no; the audience doesn't know who Greenglass is (was), and Linda Lavin doesn't know who Greenglass is (was), and so playwright Greenberg interrupts his first act climax by having his other characters give us a little history lesson--not as part of the action, but as narration. All about the executed spy Ethel Rosenberg (think Meryl Streep, we're told), and her kid brother Greenglass, who blithely sent her to the electric chair in order to save his own skin. "Oy vey," says Linda Lavin's son, "again with the Rosenbergs."
Linda Lavin and John Procaccino in Our Mother's Brief Affair. Photo: Joan Marcus
Not much of a hook upon which to hang a play, I'm afraid. We saw recently, with the Signature Theatre revival of Arthur Miller's Incident at Vichy, that hazily-remembered history can be brought to vibrant dramatic life. But that's not what happens here. If Greenberg had written this play with a fictional equivalent of Greenglass, the results might not have been finer; the insertion of all this non-compelling Rosenberg talk, though, seems to detract.

Linda Lavin is her usual self, which is to say she is up there crustily firing off quips as if they were Roman candles. The actress has reached the point where she can make just about anything sound funny, even when she doesn't have the power to make the lines sound convincing. By now, we can reliably depend on her; go see Linda Lavin in a Linda Lavin role, and you can be certain that she will entertain you. My observation, though, is that the actress is at her best when they put her in a non-Linda Lavin role, as in Neil Simon's Broadway Bound or Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities. But Lavin doesn't write the plays, she can only accept acting jobs that are offered to her.

(Let it be added that Greenberg's play was originally produced in 2009 at the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, with Jenny O'Hara in the central role. Which doesn't mean that Our Mother's Brief Affair is not a "Linda Lavin play"; it only means that she didn't play the role in Costa Mesa.) Lavin is supported by Greg Keller as the son, Kate Arrington as the daughter, and John Procaccino as the charming-but-damaged Greenglass, all under the direction of Manhattan Theatre Club Artistic Director Lynne Meadow. Everybody gets by, more or less.

And so we have a new Linda Lavin play, which presents the star successfully and amusingly playing a Linda Lavin role. If Mr. Greenberg was attempting to give us something with socio-politico-historical import--like the aforementioned Other Desert Cities, for instance, or Anthony Giardina's City of Conversation--he has not convincingly done so. Seekers of Jewish mother comedy, though, should be more than content with the acting demonstration offered by the star.
Our Mother's Brief Affair opened January 20, 2016 and continues through March 6 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre