“I wish she were in every musical and revue.”
So wrote Stanley Kauffmann, the 1965-66 theater critic for The New York Times in his review of “IT’S A BIRD, IT’S A PLANE, IT’S SUPERMAN.”
He was referring to Linda Lavin, who’d been the object of his affection two months earlier when he reviewed her in THE MAD SHOW. And while Lavin to this day still enjoys saying-slash-joking that “Mr. Kauffmann was the smartest of all critics,” he ultimately turned out to be myopic – or just not so good at fortune-telling.
For over the last 40 or so years Lavin has made many theatergoers wish she could be in every play, too. All right, she might not be right for THE HISTORY BOYS or VICTORIA MARTIN: MATH TEEN QUEEN. But anyone who stages a piece with a substantial part for a mature woman – no, even a middle-aged woman – would be lucky to have Lavin’s participation.
Said play could be either a comedy or drama, for Lavin is expert at portraying humorous characters (THE LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS) or serious ones (BROADWAY BOUND, for which she won her Tony). Right now playwright Richard Greenberg and director Lynne Meadow are giving her the chance to display both her comic and dramatic skills as Anna Cantor in Richard Greenberg’s OUR MOTHER’S BRIEF AFFAIR. Although it’s technically a drama, it has a good deal of comedy in it, some of which is jet black – and all of which Lavin deeply mines.
Anna’s on her deathbed, which is prime time for divulging secrets. “Did I ever tell you about my affair?” she says oh-so-matter-of-factly – which rattles her thirtysomething fraternal twins Seth and Abby. They’re inclined to believe that this revelation is just a flight of fanciful senility on Anna’s part. Or do children just need to believe that their parents were always 100% faithful?
Although Santo Loquasto’s unit set is thoroughly unremarkable, theatergoers may not mind because Lavin gets us to focus on her. All those subtle touches! She follows the semi-mundane line “I was in despair” by suddenly shooting her eyeballs upward into her forehead with such force that we worry that they may never come back down.
Seth (the fine Greg Keller) tells us that Anna is the type of woman who likes “iceberg lettuce with bottled dressing” which dovetails nicely with his description of her being “cold and warm.” He’s right. That Anna recalls that he and Abby were “the only twins in the neighborhood” is one thing, but Lavin’s wince of pain lets us know how she felt about that. Although she wouldn’t have to say anything else to make her point, Greenberg allows her to follow it with one of his funniest-ever lines. Shall we say that Lavin hits a home run with it? No, let’s call it an inside-the-park home run; they’re rarer.
Does she allow for any sentimentality? Not a chance – as is proved by Anna’s chance remark about her feelings for her children. Lavin gives a casual and unembarrassed shrug before saying that she likes them “by and large.”
Theatergoers will by and large like OUR MOTHER’S BRIEF AFFAIR. At first, Greenberg seems to be following the boiler-plate advice bestowed in how-to-write-a-play manuals: “Give each character a secret.” For in addition to Anna’s, Seth and Abby each had one that they spilled some years back. As it turns out, Phil — with whom Anna did (or didn’t) consort — had a secret that easily trumped all three of theirs.
“At this point,” says Phil (the estimable John Procaccino) “people leave the room.”
Audiences will stay, however, for Greenberg is no paint-by-numbers playwright. He’s especially deft at coming out with a line that makes attendees pause, ponder, realize what he means and then laugh in delight. This delayed reaction happens after Abby (the effective Kate Arrington) observes “Sex is how mothers used to be mothers.” The audience was in the dark in more ways than one for a few seconds before the collective light went on and the burst of laughter began. All through the night, Greenberg tosses off seemingly insignificant lines that ultimately turn out to be profound; it’s up to us to keep up with him.
The playwright also excels at mix-and-matching simple words that together get laughs. Anna says that Seth’s childhood attempts at playing the viola made him a “string terrorist.” And yet, Anna wasn’t happy when Seth wanted to give up the instrument; just like Maggie’s mother in A CHORUS LINE, she wonders why she paid for all those lessons. “I,” says Anne definitely and defiantly “am NOT giving that up.”
Lavin has always shone when delivering no-nonsense statements and accompanying them with a case-closed definitive head nod. Even a gag such as “It took a while for trends to reach Long Island” gets the martini-dry treatment followed by a look that says she won’t entertain an argument. She knows that no one will dare give her one, anyway.
As for the plot, Greenberg does manage to pull out the rug out from under us, but near play’s end, he tries to insert it back beneath our feet. Alas, we’ve planted them too firmly on the ground by that point for him to slip it under us. The sticky situation he created stays sticky.
And yet, any flaw in OUR MOTHER’S BRIEF AFFAIR is ameliorated by Our Leading Lady. “She’ll live forever,” Anna’s husband staunchly says of his wife. Let’s hope that’s true of Linda Lavin, too.