Monday, February 11, 2013

Case Study No. 0780: Abby

Our Mother's Brief Affair Video Clip
The world premiere of Richard Greenberg's "Our Mother's Brief Affair," directed by Pam MacKinnon, runs at South Coast Repertory from April 3 May 3, 2009. CAST: Matthew Arkin (Father/Lover), Arye Gross (Seth), Marin Hinkle (Abby) and Jenny OHara (Anna). CREATIVE TEAM: Sibyl Wickersheimer (Set Design), Rachel Myers (Costume Design), Lap-Chi Chu (Lighting Design), Michael K. Hooker (Sound Design), John Glore (Dramaturg) and Kathryn Davies (Stage Manager).
Tags: theatre theater scr south coast repertory
Added: 3 years ago
From: SouthCoastRepertory
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[scene opens with Seth and his librarian sister Abby sitting on a bench]
ABBY: I've been reading about holocausts and cataclysms of the past, not just the famous ones. Not just Jews and Armenians, the smaller scale too--
SETH: Wow.
ABBY: What?
SETH: I mean, you're so busy. Connie and Dyllis and the library, where do you get time to read?
ABBY: Well, to Dyllis, at bedtime.
SETH: You read to her about holocausts and cataclysms of the past?
ABBY: Yes?
SETH: She's ten months old!
ABBY: Yes ... but I found I would be reading to her, when suddenly Curious George lept over the fence, and she would look up at me with these fuzzy eyes and this sort of gassy smile. And one night, I just tried, y'know, instead ... and the next morning several citizens of Hamburg were found lying in pools of their own congealed fat, and she looked at me exactly the same way. So this just seemed, um, fine.
[he stares at her with a look of disbelief]



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.



Now that they've commissioned 12 of the man's plays and produced 10 of them, how closely — one wonders—- does anyone at South Coast Repertory actually read a fresh-off-the-word-processor script by Richard Greenberg any more before fast tracking it for the stage? And if the SCR brass are reading, does anybody have the moxy to say to the Pulitzer prize winning author of Take me Out,"Uh, Rich, thanks for the work and all, but this one might be better as a short story."

Our Mother's Brief Affair, Greenberg's ninth world premiere at SCR since 1988 is brief indeed — in length and in import. Traipsing his way across the dynamics of middle class Jews, Greenberg is once again turning his lens on a family unit, its conflicts and its secrets. The titular mother, Anna (played by Jenny O'Hara), is a dying dowager who cracks as wise as her twin progeny Seth (Arye Gross) and Abby (Marin Hinkle).

Anna is an entirely ordinary person — just the way the playwright admires her— who may once have engaged in a slightly extraordinary act. Anna's also toting around a secret from her teen years that prevents her from relaxing, from being a decent dancer.

Of course Anna's perception of what's consequential may well differ from yours, from her children's and unquestionably from Richard Greenberg's. There's certainly nothing criminal in finding beauty or drama in the mundane, in trying to give an ordinary life a flash of import. Greenberg, who has successfully dramatized baseball stars (in Take me Out) and quiz show celebrities (Night and her Stars) need make no apology for returning to the more intimate canvas of nobodies. Except that Brief Affair is a boring play with a flimsy agenda which no amount of careful direction of clever dialog can mask. There's maybe 20 minutes of a watchable tale here which Greenberg and director Pam MacKinnon have somehow stretched into a 100 minute intermission-less play.

Interspersed within the narrative of Anna's story — which is passed back and forth by Anna's children, Greenberg treats us to the witty neuroses of Seth and Abby. The former is a gay obit writer who endures his mom's gentle chiding ("If you're not going to sleep with anyone, would it kill you to not sleep with a woman?") Abby's a librarian and a new mother who has uprooted to Orange County (the playwright frequently slips in references to his adopted region), is in a relationship with a woman, but is now thinking about ending it.

Seth and Abby say things like "Laguna lacks a sense of apocalyptic intimacy" and "You're a cosmonaut" as though they were auditioning each other for a role in the next Woody Allen scrip. Which would be fitting since, as far as this critic can see, they serve absolutely no function in Our Mother's Brief Affair except to crack witticisms and pad the play's length.

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