Brief Encounters

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This is James Taylor with Theater Talk.

After so many diverting, well-written, but not quite satisfying works (not to mention a few bona fide clunkers) I've stopped anticipating new Richard Greenberg plays and I no longer wait for him to finally pen the "Great American Drama." Greenberg has written some lovely minor plays, like Three Days of Rain and Take Me Out, but the big, defining work eludes him. Despite the grand ambitions of his characters and the big themes that his plays address, Greenberg remains a miniaturist.

His new play, Our Mother's Brief Affair, currently receiving its world premiere at South Coast Repertory, is another minor work. It's an anecdotal, intermission-less affair where the characters address the audience as if the whole thing were a group therapy session.

In many ways, that's all the play is — two grown siblings relating their frustrations about their Jewish mother, Anna, and her insistence that she carried out an affair on the afternoons when she dropped her son Seth off for violin lessons at Julliard.

Greenberg's characters here, as usually is the case, are smart, witty and insecure. His dialogue flows easily from Ayre Gross and Marin Hinkle who play the siblings, but it feels almost too easy. What saves the play from being merely a lackadaisical exercise is Jenny O'Hara who gives an exquisitely nuanced performance as the absent-minded and questionably adulterous mother.

brief_affair.jpg (I'll add here that Matthew Arkin gives a solid performance as the infamous man who may or may not be the mother's lover, but to tell you more would give away the play's secret.)

Early on in Our Mother's Brief Affair, O'Hara's Anna feels like a cliché, the batty, sharp-tongued bubbe; but as the play progresses, she becomes something much more complex and human. This is the second fine performance of a Greenberg matriarch this season, after Mercedes Ruhl's excellent turn as the flinty, Austrian Émigré, Eva Adler in the stylish Broadway revival of the playwright's 1990 drama The American Plan. Anna is the opposite of Ruhl's Eva who slyly seduces and gets what she wants, O'Hara creates a fragile woman who takes what's given to her and only in retrospect tries to turn it into what she wants.

voice_lessons1.jpg Another fine portrayal of an older woman looking to find meaning in her life courtesy of a brief affair is being performed at the Zephyr Theater courtesy of actress Laurie Metcalf and playwright Justin Tanner. Metcalf plays Ginny, a frazzled community theater actress who thinks vocal training will make her dreams come true in Tanner's latest comedy, titled simply Voice Lessons.

Just as Greenberg specializes in portraits of striving east coast sophisticates, Tanner has an ear and eye for aging California slackers. Ginny, like so many of Tanner's endearing sad sacks, thinks that if she keeps talking long enough, maybe she convince herself and others that her life and career are going nowhere.

voice_lessons2.jpg Metcalf appears in an array bad outfits — some involving neon or spandex — and layers of bright mascara that make her eyes look like two peacock feathers. Metcalf is a wonderful comedienne — it's hard to say which is funnier, hearing Metcalf beg the teacher to take her on as a student (and trying not to sound desperate) or watching her try to avoid doing any actual work once he reluctantly agrees.

Like much of the playwright's work (including Pot Mom, the first Tanner play Metcalf appeared in) Voice Lessons is short, funny and unresolved. It opens with a few short scenes with lots of laughs, but about half way through its 55 minutes, it runs out of breath. Once Tanner loses focus of the bizarre dynamic between the tightly wound teacher (drolly played by French Stewart) and his impossible student, the tension is gone, and the play deflates into a flabby, if still amusing, sex farce.

The world premiere of Justin Tanner's Voice Lessons continues at the Zephyr Theatre in Hollywood through June 7; Our Mother's Brief Affair runs through Sunday at South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa.

This is James Taylor with Theater Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: Jenny O'Hara, Ayre Gross and Marin Hinkle (L to R) in Our Mother's Brief Affair