A Lifetime Burning
Directed by Pam Mackinnon
Starring Raul Castillo, Isabel Keating, Christina Kirk, Jennifer Westfeldt
July 28-September 5, 2009
Primary Stages at 59 E 59 Theaters
Phony memoirs by authors like James Frey (excoriated by Oprah after A Million Little Pieces turned out to have been faked) have been subjected to media overkill lately, and Cusi Cram’s A Lifetime Burning follows the fallout from a “memoir” written by Emma, an Irish-American woman who “confesses” to being part Incan.
When an advance feature about Emma is published in the “Style” section of The New York Times—giving her book valuable publicity—older, bitter sister Tess reads it and immediately hightails it down from her comfortable house in Westchester County (where her two brats are about to poison the family dog and her husband is soon to be her ex) to confront little sis’s lies.
That Cram has crammed several interlocking plot lines into her 90-minute one-acter has been criticized in some quarters, as if straying off-topic from her too-familiar “truth vs. real” theme weakens her play. Instead, A Lifetime Burning also explores sibling rivalry and liberal guilt, which at least gives audiences an interesting, if ultimately unsatisfactory, juggling act.
Emma is a bright, pampered (she got extra money from their dad’s will, which Tess is still angry over) woman who volunteers as a tutor for Latinos who want to pass the GED tests. She falls for one of her students, the Peruvian Alejandro; more than a decade her junior, he has a fling with her that provides the basis for her fake biography, which he discovers while she’s writing. He leaves after accusing her of using him simply to get material for her story.
In a rather implausible subplot, Emma is able to convince an experienced book editor, Lydia Freemantle—yes, she’s British—to give her a six-figure advance, and although Lydia is given refreshingly frank and sharp-tongued dialogue, that she’s duped by Emma without her questioning the author’s far-fetched tale is, frankly, pat and lazy writing on Cram‘s part.
Emma’s dealings with Alejandro and Lydia are juggled by Cram within the sisters’ confrontations, which give her over-familiar play added dramatic crackle. Pam MacKinnon’s slick staging utilizes a nicely-appointed set by Kris Stone (with a big assist by Eva Zeisel and Design within Reach) and a formidable quartet of actors, led by Jennifer Westfeldt, whose Emma remains sympathetic without being particularly likeable; if only Christina Kirk didn’t overdo Tess’s rage (even if some of it’s in Cram’s script).
Finally, however, the author’s insufficient character development makes A Lifetime Burning nothing more than an intermittently perceptive and witty diversion.
originally posted on timessquare.com