In Our Mother’s Brief Affair, Greg Keller plays Seth, an obituary writer who discovers his mother Anna (Linda Lavin) had a torrid affair when he was a teenager. The discovery sends him down an introspective path along with his twin sister Abby (Kate Arrington),a s they come to terms with the notion that parents are people too. Cleverly written by Richard Greenberg, and stylishly directed by Lynne Meadow, the play gives Keller his most prominent role to date. I spoke to him about his current hot streak, working with Linda Lavin and finding the time to write his own work.
Your character in Of Good Stock was kind of a jerk, and I always wonder, as an actor do you need to empathize with your character’s choices in order to play them onstage?
I’m not sure that you have to empathize, I think you want to try to understand them in their context and hopefully you can empathize with them, but if you can’t, understanding how they came to happen is second best.
I’m asking because when I saw you in Our Mother’s Brief Affair, I didn’t even recognize you at first. Maybe because Seth is a “nicer” character you looked different. Do you have anything in common with Seth?
I do, Seth is a pretty cerebral guy, I’m a pretty cerebral guy, he’s a writer, I try to write plays. I have a sister and we have a kind of similar way in which we complain and commiserate, so that I understood. I feel a certain connection to Richard’s writing in that it has poetry and is lyrical, but it also manages to be broadly entertaining. I have a strong poetic side and a strong wanting to make people laugh kinda thing.
Has being in the play forced you in any way to reevaluate your own relationship with your parents? Do you wonder now about the things they don’t tell you?
It’s funny because Kate and I said the same thing, we had this moment about ten years ago when you realize your parents are humans and you start to get very interested in their lives and childhood, and how everything went down. I definitely have started poking around in my parents’ past and try to figure them out, as a way to have sympathy for them, but also to try to figure myself out through that lens.
The play gives us the advantage/or disadvantage of having three different narrators, I wonder if this ever turns into a game between you, Kate and Linda. Did you discuss who we should believe or root for?
That is something that I spoke about with our director because the play is a memory play, so it can sometimes have a floating quality so I was always looking for ways to keep it active. One of the things we decided was something that I could actively pursue was this kind of wrestling for the truth. I think most of the play I am receiving the truth and gobsmacked by it, but towards the end I make some discoveries and try to grasp hold of the narrative which is also Seth’s own narrative combined with his mother’s. I don’t think I ever talked about it with Linda, but in the opening where my character says facts about his mother and she embodies them, the first couple of nights there would be things the audience laughs at that Linda does, so when I got my first laugh I was like “aha!” this feels good, now who’s winning mom? So that set the stage for that competitive feeling you mention.
(Laughs) Man, yeah, it is amazing! Not just because I grew up watching Alice in syndication but also because I have seen Linda in a bunch of plays and I’m always blown away with her. So when I had the opportunity to do this I felt I couldn’t pass it up, she’s always totally present, we play, we subtly try different things with each other, she’s super fun to work with, and I learn a lot every night.
You’ve worked with legends like Jane Fonda and now Linda. You also starred in Wit opposite Cynthia Nixon. You keep working with all these great women...
And Alicia Silverstone of course! They’re all super strong, dynamic, amazing women. I just sort of try to absorb different things from all of them.
You’re a playwright, what insights do you gain from working with people as prolific as Richard Greenberg?
If you read a play you kind of get the jist of it, if you see a play you have appreciation for how it works in a surface way, but getting to inhabit somebody’s play you get to really see the machinery of it, and you notice different things about the way in which it’s working each night. In Richard’s play you notice the amazing way in which it’s built and how he echoes different things throughout, lines that you wonder why they’re there, then a couple of weeks into rehearsal you realize that line you said in the beginning comes back in the end, things that don’t seem crucial or pertinent are actually reverberating in a great way.
You mentioned in an interview once that you usually play parts you are offered, I’ve seen you in a few plays in a row, at one point you were even going to be in The Humans, are you perhaps in the midst of your best streak yet? Has it become easy to pick parts over others?
That has become a very recent problem for me and I wouldn’t even call it a problem obviously. A lot of different things go into a decision like that, but 2015 was crazy in terms of getting jobs if you told me somebody would offer me those jobs ten years ago I wouldn’t believe it. It’s a nice problem to have and knock wood it will continue. As an actor you’re always thinking you won’t have work…
You probably have less time to write your own plays right now, but as you work with actors like Linda for instance, do you ever want to write specific things for specific people you’ve worked with?
I haven’t been doing a ton of writing because acting has been busy, but yes, I want to write for everybody I work with (laughs) I think I have to write like a 50 character play that has parts for all of my favorite actors, but it’s definitely inspiring. I hope to write 50 plays, one for each of them, rather than one play for 50 actors.
Our Mother's Brief Affair runs through March 6.