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A Lifetime Burning

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Raúl Castillo and Jennifer Westfeldt.
Photo by James Leynse.

If epigrams were profundity, A Lifetime Burning would be a top contender for the theatrical equivalent of the Bible. Cusi Cram's new play at Primary Stages may purport to be a searing examination of the fine line between fact and fiction that the written word and the writers thereof constantly blur, but it really exists for just one reason: to demonstrate its playwright's prolificacy with comic and earnest one- and two-liners.

As such, it requires as its setup just a simple one-two process. First, establish the four characters: the author, Emma (Jennifer Westfeldt), who's penned a too-good-to-be-true memoir of the way race has affected her upbringing and her love life; her sister, Tess (Christina Kirk), who knows Emma's truths and demands their transparency, but constantly masks the lies on which she's built her own life; the bourbon-tongued English publisher, Lydia Freemantle (Isabel Keating), on whose shoulders the success or failure of Emma's treatise (titled Bipolar, With Style) rests; and Alejandro (Raúl Castillo), the sexy student who becomes unwittingly caught in Emma's web of mendacity after she meets him volunteering. Then, let the laughs and language sizzle:

Emma, describing her specific drinking-eating disorder: "I think I'm becoming a drunk-o-rexic."

Tess to Emma, on why she shouldn't pretend to be one-quarter Cherokee and one quarter Inca, when she's really 100 percent Irish: "Race is not transcendable. Race is a fact." To which Emma responds: "Is it?"

Emma, responding to her sister's skeptical opinion of the drugs she's using to treat (or not) her manic depression: "We live in a world where passion is medicated."

Lydia to Emma, who's fretting about her perceived inability to compete with the oeuvre of Sylvia Plath: "You are Bell Jar in the city."

Emma, on why she doesn't write a novel: "Memoirs sell better. Fiction isn't real enough anymore."

These lines and uncountable others explode at you so quickly over the course of the play's 90-minute running time that you may sometimes feel you're on the receiving end of the richest collection of wit and wisdom New York has seen in many seasons. But scratch the surface of any of the sayings that pelt you like hail during almost every scene, and you won't discover much blood.

After all: How wounding is any of this today? The real literary scandals of the recent past, whether concerning James Frey's A Million Little Pieces or Herman Rosenblat's Angel at the Fence, are too cracklingly audacious to be confined to an Off-Broadway stage - they needed Oprah Winfrey to scale, and plunge from, their impressive heights. And the economic devastation that has not yet fully released its grip on the United States doesn't help either: A rich white woman who's conceived this as a way to make her "stupid" life more "palatable" after frittering away an enormous inheritance, is not exactly an automatic sympathy generator.

Isabel Keating
Photo by James Leynse.

Nor, unfortunately, is Emma so developed that you can accept this as part of a larger framework of characterization. "I shared a sense of profound alienation with them," she explains of the at-risk Latino youth who inspired her to write (and whom she eventually exploits), but where that derives from, if not from anonymous liberal guilt (which is hard to dramatize), there's little clue to what its source really is. Emma, then, becomes little more than a mouthpiece for a cause that barely exists. What else is there for audiences to do but hunker down and wait for the next lemon-zested zinger? Because of all this, A Lifetime Burning is darn difficult to take seriously, despite the iron-clad commitment of everyone involved.

Director Pam MacKinnon delivers a largely winning production, briskly staged and attractively filling out Kris Stone's exquisitely appointed apartment set. Westfeldt invests Emma with enough committee-approved self-loathing to almost convince you she really is trapped within her own privilege; the talent she and Keating, at her vermouth-dry best, display for spitting out those priceless lines makes you feel you're being fed a seven-part dessert course. Unfortunately, Kirk and Castillo exist outside most of the this, and thus give the least exciting performances - she's too stuffy to be believable as an energized and annoyed fighter (and she doesn't handle very well the character's sole defining trait: a persistent, whole-word stutter), and he conveys little of the dangerous, promising magnetism that would inspire Emma to such willful acts of misrepresentation.

If Emma's sacrifice means nothing, the rest of the play delivers scarcely more meaning. There are occasional hints of the integrated show a less conspicuously entertaining playwright might have written: the way Emma's casual relationship with reality is refracted in the way Tess imagines, and then controls, her sister's date with Alejandro; or the minor detours into meta that promise an explanation of Emma's more fantastical qualities that never arrives. But none of these concepts develops; each is shunted out of the way in favor of more hand-wringing activism or more billowing bon mots.

Those, by the way, never get tiresome. There are worse things than to spend an evening listening to Keating wrap her lips around rafter-raisers like "I love a good literary read as much as the next head of a publishing house." But there are better things, too, such as plays that use statements like these to decorate and illuminate character, not substitute for it. If Cram really does believe Emma's contention that "perhaps if we dig deep enough, we all have a little Inca in us," she'll never make the case as long as she sticks so close to the surface.

A Lifetime Burning
Through September 5
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison.
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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