By ALIA STEARNS
Children view their parents as sexless creatures, even though a child’s entire existence is the product of raw parental sexuality. And, it is mothers more often than fathers who are placed on a rigid, unearned pedestal of purity and selflessness by their offspring. In Our Mother’s Brief Affair, at Triangle Productions, author Richard Greenberg explores the life of Anna (Michelle Maida), a mother who is neither selfless nor pure, and her relationship with her twin children, Seth (Alex Fuchs) and Abby (Deanna Wells).
Anna steps onto the stage before the lights go low, sitting on one of the two benches that make up the entirety of the set and occupying herself quietly as the audience continues murmuring pre-theater chatter. When Seth steps on the stage, he launches into the first of the night’s bouts of exposition. An obituary writer by trade, he has trouble fully capturing his mother as he has come to know her. She isn’t a cold woman, exactly, but she also isn’t the sort prone to affectionate behaviors like assigning nicknames to her children. Anna is also what Seth terms “an average situational liar but not at all a maker of fables.”
Given her casual relationship with the truth, the revelations that Anna presents to her children as they visit her on one of her many deathbeds are in question throughout the play. After she proudly declares she had an affair when Seth was 15 (12 by his memory), the audience and Anna’s children spend the remainder of the action trying to determine whether it is true or a fabrication born of senility. Along with the primary disclosure come others, at a measured pace, and the audience is kept guessing. But these regularly doled out revelations also disrupt a narrative arc that comes to a clear dramatic climax.
After his sister Abby arrives from California, Seth is surprised to learn that she knew of a possible affair. But neither has any idea of the details. So, Anna begins to tell them the story. In these moments, the character reverts to her past self, an attractive woman with shapely gams, a Burberry trench coat, and a stylish scarf. She may not be conventionally sexy, especially to her children, but the audience sees her potential. After dropping Seth off at Juilliard for weekly viola lessons, she begins a flirtation with a man named Phil (Twig Webster), who asks to sit with her on a Central Park bench. In time, the pair are having clandestine rendezvous at a small hotel. All the hallmarks of a traditional affair’s progression are in place. And, then it is turned upside down.
In Act 2, a tremendous plot twist comes straight from the Cold War, taking whatever growth has been made in telling the story of this small, immediate family and halting it, asking the audience to reorient themselves. Up to this point, the darkly comedic tone and shifts between past and present create a tentative sense of intimacy in the small theater. For this twist to make sense, suddenly both Seth and Abby are on their feet, breaking the fourth wall and offering a heavy dose of exposition. Does the audience need the information? Probably. Is the providing of it heavy-handed and disruptive? Totally.
The second half of the play never regains the sure footing of the first half, despite amazing performances by the entire ensemble. The writing is full of the sharp wit the entertainment industry has taught us to expect from East Coast Jewish liberal depressives, and the lines are starkly funny. But that doesn’t contribute to emotional engagement. A play like this can’t afford a grand switcheroo on an audience only slightly connected to the characters. By the time that Anna reveals her deepest secret to her inamorato, and by extension to her children, it feels thin. Maida is present and powerful in her delivery, and Wells looks on from the opposite side of the stage in tears, but it’s hard to care or feel satisfied by it.
The characters also seem to buckle in the situation, and it’s possible that the ambivalence is by design, placing the audience under the weight of both fact and fiction until it all becomes too much to bear. But given the emotionally engaged performances of the cast, that seems a stretch. Better to acknowledge that the deftness with which the drama plays with fact and fiction is compelling until secrets continue being delivered like unwanted mailers.
If the plot leaves an emotional engagement to be desired, the performances do not. The cast occupies the characters like soft, threadbare garment that has been worn to make thousands of memories. They are those people. This is especially important as many of them have to transition between the past and present, playing different ages. Each shift is swift and without hesitation.
Whether as the disillusioned writer or the frustrated young viola player grappling with his knowledge of his homosexuality, Fuchs is spot-on as Seth. As Anna, Maida is a nervous young lover as readily and richly as she is a confused geriatric. It is simply unfortunate that the way these characters are written doesn’t leave much to which to attach.
Triangle Productions’ Our Mother’s Brief Affair continues through March 31 in The Sanctuary at Sandy Plaza. Ticket and schedule information here.