Anna (Jenny O’Hara) has been almost dying for years. But each time she is carted off to the hospital, she rallies, bounces out of her “deathbed” and returns to her home in Brooklyn. While fiercely clinging to life, however, she is slowly losing her grip on reality. Or so it seems.

Her grown children have once again gathered at her bedside. Seth and Abby (Arye Gross and Marin Hinkle) are twins, both gay, and both apparently dedicated underachievers. Seth is creatively content with his career: he writes obituaries. Abby lives in California with her partner and their baby girl, conceived, as Anna derisively assumes, “with a turkey baster.”

“I like returnable children,” Anna says.

Anna talks about Seth’s musical history: he studied viola at Juilliard, an instrument, she says, that was “designed for recessive personalities” and dismisses it with the comment that “the viola is the same as a violin, except that no one cares about it.”

With this fast-paced beginning, playwright Richard Greenberg quickly establishes the relationships in his play “Our Mother’s Brief Affair,” commissioned by, and now having its world premiere, at the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. While the initial story line and characters will be familiar to those who saw Greenberg’s earlier play “Everett Beekin,” which premiered at the South Coast Rep in 2000, “Our Mother’s Brief Affair” veers off in an entirely new and unexpected direction.

As in the earlier play, there is another character: Anna’s husband Abe, who storms around the stage in fits of bad temper. He is played by Matthew Arkin, who also plays Anna’s secret lover, Phil, her partner in their “brief affair.”

Perhaps because she believes she may actually die this time, Anna suddenly reveals to her children the family secrets she has been squelching for years. She tells them about her romance with Phil, their clandestine meetings while Seth was having his viola lessons at Juilliard, the excitement of having a private adventure of her own. “It wasn’t the sex, it was the secrecy,” she explains.

And then she provides a shocking postscript. Phil wasn’t actually Phil; the name was a pseudonym adopted by an infamous political informant whose deception and double-dealing led to the deaths of his family members. To which an enraged Seth explodes, “It’s like discovering that your mother had an affair with Adolph Hitler!”

There is also a childhood misdemeanor that has tormented Anna all her life, but it is so relatively insignificant that her children are easily able to lift that burden from her shoulders. Nevertheless, in the end Seth and Abby are left to ponder their mother’s stories and try to determine which, if any, are true.

“Our Mother’s Brief Affair” is a fascinating play, mostly because the actors are so good under the tight direction of Pam MacKinnon. But also for the star turn delivered by Jenny O’Hara, well-known in Los Angeles and New York, but here making her South Coast Rep debut. She is funny, quirky, mentally adrift, shrewd, and dreamy, and is a real delight to watch.

Further, Sybil Wickersheimer has designed a deceptively austere setting which turns out to serve the story well. It is a neighborhood park, surrounded by brick buildings, with a bare tree off-center and a scattering of benches that serve as various backgrounds as the story moves along. As each actor completes a scene, he retires to a less prominent bench, so no one ever actually leaves the stage. And no one in the audience leaves either. They remain gripped to the very end.

“Our Mother’s Brief Affair” will continue at the South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., through May 3. Call (714) 708-5555 for tickets or purchase them online at www.scr.org.

Cynthia Citron can be reached at ccitron@socal.rr.com.

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