The playwright Richard Greenberg is musing about his new work, “Our Mother’s Brief Affair,” and about what happens when we’re dealt a hand we didn’t see coming.
“When you have a baroque juxtaposition of events, one that is outlandish and ungrasped, we reflect back on the workaday philosophy of our lives,” Greenberg said in a phone interview with The Jewish Week. “We live and act in certain ways, and have ways of describing [the events] but when they get exploded, there’s a lot of savagery underneath.”
“Our Mother’s Brief Affair,” which opened last week at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway ($60-$140;  239-6200) and is the 11th collaboration between the playwright and Manhattan Theatre Club, stars Linda Lavin as a terminally ill Jewish matriarch, Anna, who reveals a shocking secret from her past.
Directed by Lynne Meadow (and running through March 6), the show centers on a character that first appeared in Greenberg’s “Everett Beekin,” his 2001 drama about an immigrant Jewish family on the Lower East Side. In the new play, Anna and her children, Seth (Greg Keller) and Abby (Kate Arrington), plumb the depths of their family history as they sit on a bench in Central Park that shifts back and forth to a hospital sickbed.
In the wake of Anna’s revelations, Seth and Abby wonder how much they have truly known their mother, and grapple with what the playwright called a “turbulence that won’t ever go away.” For when Anna confides in them about the mysterious man (John Procaccino) with whom she had an adulterous fling, the children have to sort out their feelings both about their mother’s infidelity and about the lover’s connection to a dark period in American — and Jewish — history.
Greenberg’s theme is that domestic and societal sins can differ only in magnitude. “We operate on a small enough scale that the ways in which we justify ourselves seem acceptable,” he observed. “But when you scale them up, they seem horrifying.” Conversely, ordinary people process political events at street level, so that “even an event with global ramifications becomes spoken of in the language of the neighborhood.” In this way, huge public betrayals, he explained, mirror quotidian personal ones.
The playwright, who penned the play a decade ago, did not have Lavin in mind when he was writing the central character. He just knew that this character is a woman who feels trapped in her marriage and unable to extricate herself. “She didn’t have that extra level of push or defiance that would have enabled her to find a life that suited her,” he said. “It was a time when women had to be heroic in order to fulfill themselves.”
While not all of Greenberg’s plays have a Jewish tone, he has tried throughout much of his work to preserve the sound of earlier generations of American Jews, including his own parents and grandparents. “There’s a kind of speech, a savor that’s going out of the world,” he said. “I want to hear those sentences again, even if they drove me crazy growing up. They’re what I was reared in, what pervaded my life. A lot of my education, whether deliberately or not, was about getting rid of that. Now I’m trying to getting it back.”