A Lifetime Burning is far too grandiose a title for the 90 intermissionless minutes of Cusi Cram’s new play, the opening production in Primary Stages’ 2009–10 season at 59E59 Theaters. Small-scale in form and conventional in its materials, Cram’s work deserves a more appropriate title, if only to signal theatergoers that her quirky, often funny, and sometimes surprisingly sharp-witted writing injects some fresh flavors into what might otherwise be a predictable excursion into Off-Broadway–style family angst, with social issues tacked on (choice of two) like sides on a restaurant menu. In a sense, though, Cram’s gestures toward literary grandeur—the title comes from one of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets; the play also contains a recitation, with comments, of Philip Larkin’s most famous poem—are part of the quirkiness that separates her play from the usual run of such things. The old-fashioned tactic adds an eccentric charm to a work that in other ways seems to try very hard to be up-to-date.
The family angst in A Lifetime Burning concerns the sibling catfight—on a battlefield situated roughly midway between the territories occupied by Wendy Wasserstein and Caryl Churchill—of Emma (Jennifer Westfeldt) and her older sister, Tess (Christina Kirk). Emma has just written, for an enormous advance, a memoir detailing her struggle to survive her harrowing childhood, complete with imagined Inca ancestry, brutal ghetto environment, and a drug-addicted mother. Since the sisters grew up Irish-American and comfortably off, in the middle-class blandness of suburban Westchester, Tess understandably resents the fraud. She has resented all the extra attention and money that she believes have been lavished on unstable Emma from their childhood on. It doesn’t help matters that Tess happens to be employed by Luxurious Houses magazine, while Emma’s pre-pub PR has just been launched with a Times “Style” section feature on her apartment, gorgeously redecorated thanks to her whopping advance. Even the sight of the yummy Eva Zeisel coffee table downstage center doesn’t cheer Tess up. On top of everything, her ex-husband, a selfish swine of a hedge-fund manager, is trying to turn their kids against her so he can claim sole custody. Tess is not having a good day.
Neither, particularly, is Emma—especially not once the publishing superpower (Isabel Keating) who cajoled the book out of her discovers that what her firm is marketing as autobiographical honesty is a melange of half-truths, overheard truths, and outright lies. Less a linear narrative than a juggling act, Cram’s play keeps tossing one or another of its three aspects up in the air for delectation: the sisters’ embittered history; the parable of truth-versus-marketing in the media; and the equally fraught relationship with a young Latino (Raúl Castillo), from whose conversation Emma has drawn far too much of the material in her memoir. Juggling acts can be fun, and Cram’s snark-tongued dialogue intermittently makes this one delightfully pointed, but juggling acts rarely feature dramatic developments that justify their lasting 90 minutes, and the same is true here. The familiar substance of the two sisters’ quarrel gets resolved in a familiar (and overly facile) way; the two other aspects of Emma’s life-mess that have raised real-world issues to flank the personal story get left hanging, as if one’s dealings with the outside world mattered less than settling sisterly discord.
Issues of truth and authenticity in authorship are ancient. Scholars have been raising an eyebrow for centuries at Defoe’s right to tell Robinson Crusoe’s story in the first person, and I knew at least one intimate friend of Gertrude Stein’s who was prepared to swear, in old age, that Alice—not Gertrude—wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Among the many playwrights who have had fun with the topic recently, Donald Margulies seems almost preoccupied with it: Both Collected Stories and Brooklyn Boy deal with differences between what really happens and what gets published, as well as the question of who has the right to publish it, while his recent bonbon Shipwrecked!, produced in Primary Stages’ last season, dramatized the story of a real-life memoirist, Louis de Rougemont, whose alleged experiences were exposed as a bookish boy’s accumulation of library-bred fantasies. There’s even a real-life analogy to Emma’s story from the early ’80s, when the exciting young L.A. Latino writer “Danny Santiago,” having won high praise for his ostensibly autobiographical first novel, Famous All Over Town, turned out to be the elderly blacklisted screenwriter Daniel James, a graduate of Andover and Yale (where he majored in classical Greek), whose vantage point on Chicano life in East L.A. was, like Emma’s, that of a volunteer tutor.
But at least Santiago/James observed his literary subjects for two decades before writing about them, as opposed to the three years of 10 hours per week that Cram gives Emma. Also, James, who was married with children, presumably didn’t engage in any sexual entanglements with his adoptive community—if he had, they would certainly have come to light once he came out from behind his pseudonym. But in playwriting, especially nowadays, the relationship between mentor and pupil makes a sexual move on somebody’s part almost a reflexive instinct, which Cram follows as playwrights like Lucy Thurber and Rajiv Joseph have in recent seasons. Especially in this hurry-up context, the sexual connection tends to reduce the drama to TV-level facility.
As I’ve indicated, Cram deserves to give herself better chances; the real question is whether, if she took them, our resident theaters, so habituated to the facile, would give her plays a second look. Meantime, Primary Stages (which, in fairness, has often striven to break the mold of the prevailing predictability) has given A Lifetime Burning a smooth, classy production, by Pam MacKinnon, with excellent performances by all four actors, particularly Kirk, whose razor-sharp comic attack couldn’t be more perfectly fitted to her role, and Keating, who plays the haughty, high-powered editor exactly as if she knew in her heart of hearts that a remake of The Devil Wears Prada were imminent and she were going to become Meryl Streep by sheer strength of will.