A Lifetime Burning
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 8, 2009
The inciting incident of Cusi Cram's new play A Lifetime Burning is a front page spread in the New York Times Thursday Style Section showcasing a hot new writer who has just signed a deal with a major publishing house for her memoirs, which depict her rise from neglect and poverty (she's got Inca and Cherokee in her blood) to a lifestyle in which she is surrounded by lots of expensive designer furniture. Emma, said writer, has made a splash, and she's splurged much of her six-figure advance on said furniture.
Trouble is, the story she tells in said memoirs is mostly fabricated. Her elder sister Tess has arrived at the apartment, in a fury, to call her on these lies. The play unfolds, partly in flashbacks and partly chronologically starting with Tess's arrival, to portray their damaged relationship and troubled, dysfunctional, mostly unhappy lives.
I think I would like A Lifetime Burning better if Tess and Emma weren't so shallow. Though Cram saddles each of the sisters with enough problems for a Lifetime TV movie apiece—Emma is bipolar and unstable when off her meds, she's miserable because she's lonely, she can't seem to hold down a job and she's unfulfilled as a (budding, or wannabe, novelist); Tess is in the midst of a nasty divorce, distraught because her two kids seem to hate her, and still harboring deep resentment over the fact that Emma got more money from their parents when they died while the girls were teenagers—their lives feel defined by material things. Much is made of the exclusive brand names and high price tags of Emma's new coffee table, sofa, etc.; Emma admits that she agreed to write her memoirs because of the money it would make her; Tess, who works for a magazine that's described as "almost" Architectural Digest, is ready to sell out her sister and her own soul to get a gig with trendy book editor Lydia Freemantle (the woman who is publishing Emma's book).
Lydia herself, whom we meet in a couple of brief scenes, clad (naturally) in "Chanel classic," is a snooty snob of the highest order (albeit a self-aware one). Alejandro, the young Latino man whom Emma met while tutoring him for the GED exam, quickly becomes her boy toy, and not necessarily for the sake of true love.
Everybody drinks. A lot.
The tone of the play is self-congratulatorily cynical, as if just knowing that most of your choices are misguided and borderline malevolent somehow excuses them. These are not people I enjoyed spending time with.
Nor was I much convinced of their plausibility. Would a woman like Lydia really visit a soon-to-be-disgraced client rather than commanding the client to appear at her own office? Would a self-described "lazy" dropout studying for the GED, who doesn't know the word "squander," use the phrase "cerebral cortex" metaphorically in casual conversation? Does Tess really not understand why her mentally ill and frequently institutionalized sister was left the larger share of their parents' inheritance? Does anybody actually have the annoying repetitive speech pattern that Tess falls back on over and over again?
Director Pam MacKinnon keeps things moving, but her work has its lapses as well. I couldn't help noticing, for example, that while Emma says in one speech that she has planned her outfit "down to the toenail polish" she did not, from where I sat in Row D, appear to actually be wearing any polish on her toes at all.
The three actresses in the cast, stuck in dismal roles, do what they can: Isabel Keating's Lydia is the most archetypal creation and perhaps therefore the most watchable; Christina Kirk struggles as Tess, the sister we're not supposed to like, while Jennifer Westfeldt is too well-put-together to really be convincing as Emma, the one we are supposed to like, all of her flaws and difficulties notwithstanding. Raul Castillo is fine as Alejandro, despite the playwright's heavy hand in most of his scenes.
Kris Stone's set, which looks exactly the trendy downtown New York showplace it's supposed to, is easy on the eye, especially if you like that sort of thing.
I've seen several new plays this summer in which people with means—looks, intelligence, money, education, youth—seem entirely unable to pull themselves out of ruts of their own devising: I know the Recession is hitting everybody hard, but let's face it, there are people a lot worse off than Emma the Lonely Bipolar Wannabe Writer. Frankly, her story didn't interest me very much—and nothing that happened during the 90 minutes of A Lifetime Burning changed my mind.