Tess (Christina Kirk) is virtually hyper-ventilating as she confronts her sister, Emma (Jennifer Westfeldt) in her recently renovated Mulberry Street studio apartment. Shaking a newspaper in her hand and stuttering as she speaks, Tess is livid by what she has read: A memoir authored by Emma has been published in which her sister claims to have Incan blood raised in an inner city crack-head family. Tess can’t quite get her head around this absurdity, an outrageous distortion of truth. “You cannot masquerade fiction as truth,” she tells her sister. Now in their mid to late 30s, what they apparently have had to contend with is growing up with successful and famous artsy WASP parents. Now that’s a hurdle by any stretch.
A torrent of threats, insults, recriminations, and accusations are made as well as a lot of variations on the martini in Cusi Cram’s very dark comedy about fakery masquerading as fact. Under Pam MacKinnon’s excellent direction the 90 minute play crackles with wittily edged vitriol. Cram, a member of the LABrynth Theater Company, has seized upon a hot topic in recent years: creating a fiction of your own life.
As detailed in an interview by David Cote in Time Out, Cram got her inspiration from “Love and Consequences,” a totally fraudulent account by Margaret Seltzer, an upper middle class native of San Fernando Valley who claimed to be a half-Cherokee, drug dealing member of a South Central Los Angeles girl gang. That Seltzer’s sister blew the whistle directly also impacts the outcome of Cram’s play.
Cram, whose own life has evidently been affected by the death of both her parents in 2007, has certainly filled her play with the sense of loss and abandonment. One might also guess that Cram’s own sense of loss began long before her parents’ death. While both Emma and Tess have very different demons to combat, they have also become embittered towards each other as well as defensive about their own personal failures. Emma, who has been institutionalized five times for bi-polar disorder, unable to complete college or keep a steady job, has found some fulfillment tutoring under-privileged at-risk Latinos.
Westfeldt may be giving one of the most brilliantly bi-polar-propelled performances ever seen on a stage. She also invests in Emma a poignant transparency that ultimately succeeds in making us care for her well-being and a future that may include even more uncertainty. Conflicted by the privileged reality of her own life, her dependence on prescription drugs and the income from a trust fund, she has re-invented herself through a tell-all chronicle that includes the instigation of an affair with Alejandro (Raul Castillo), a bright and attractive Latino student.
The memoir is grabbed up by Lydia Freemantle (Isabel Keating), a savvy, sophisticated British literary agent with a keen sense of the publishing market. She is certainly less interested in checking the facts than in having a best seller. Keating gives a wonderfully acerbic credibility; her two scenes provide her with the opportunity to put a blistering perspective on publishing without regard for veracity. A hefty advance pays for Emma’s smartly and expensively re-decorated apartment, handsomely designed by Kris Stone in soft blue-grey tones. But Emma has her sister, Tess, to deal with, a not easily won-over life-time adversary.
As successful as Tess is as a journalist she has failed at her marriage that has ended because of her affair with a 19-year-old male Dutch au pair. Nervous and unnerving tension as well as a discernable speech impediment is at the core of Kirk’s fine performance as the ever admonishing Tess. It is a bit exhausting however to listen to her endlessly berate her sister even as she continues to obsess about her twin children who hate her and the family dog that has just died from eating grapes. That Tess has lived her life in the shadow of Emma’s more debilitating disorder, however, fuels her rage over the memoir and the potential consequences. The LAByrinth connection continues with member Castillo, who makes a terrific impression as the earnestly infatuated Alejandro.
The world premiere of “A Lifetime Burning” opens the 25th season of Primary Stages. It is the first play in a season of new works celebrating the female playwright. This play may create a buzz, if not in publishing circles, then in this new theater season. **
“A Lifetime Burning,” through Saturday, September 5, Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. $60. 212-279-4200.