Raúl Castillo,Isabel Keating, Christina Kirk, Jennifer Westfeldt
Emma’s apartment, furnished with a veryexpensive mix of vintage and exclusive modern pieces, isimpeccable. Everything is in its place; the alcohol ispractically on tap.
From the moment one enters thetheatre to experience Cusi Cram’s new play, A LifetimeBurning, the world we’re inhabiting is very clear. It’s arich and exclusive one, meant only for the beautiful people.
Asshe lounges on her flawlessly-chosen couch, Emma, a first-timememoirist is being harshly scolded by her stable, married sisterTess, who’s discovered a secret Emma didn’t try quite hard enoughto conceal.
Having survived quite a number of unsteady years onand off medication for psychological issues, Emma has latelyturned to memoir-writing, but her attention to fact needsfine-tuning to say the least. In her upcoming book, mentionedthat morning in The New York Times, she’s claimed to bepart Inuit and part Cherokee and to have survived a childhood inthe ghetto with crackhead parents (actually, they were just Irishcreative types).
Emma and Tess spend the rest of the play buttingheads, attempting to one-up one another. Who’s made the biggermistakes? Emma, who’s written a totally fabricated memoir orTess, who’s cheated on her husband with the nineteen-year-old aupair despite years of straitlaced motherhood?<?p>
Interspersed throughout their conversation areflashbacks to moments in Emma’s recent past, when she fraternizedwith a student she was tutoring named Alejandro, and as she wasnegotiating her book deal with publishing giant Lydia Freemantle(played with delicious, scenery-chewing skill by Isabel Keating).It’s all meant to add up to a portrait of a woman whose concernsare universally-minded but flawed. She thinks writing aboutunderprivileged communities gives them a voice. But her theft ofthat voice is unforgivable and ultimately leaves her wantingmore.
Though there is an abundance of wit strewnthroughout Cram’s play, which is consistently funny, there isalso a certain something off-kilter in the way the playwrightpaints her characters. In attempting to give a unique voice toLatin lover Alejandro, Cram’s writing loses its assuredness. Shegives him lines of dialogue like, "If there was trouble, I’dbe humpin’ it," and – rather more cloying – "Funny,we’re not so different." Considering the challenging topicshe’s chosen to write about Cram has taken the easy road inpainting Emma’s relationship with Alejandro as essentially one ofone-sided exploitation.
Jennifer Westfeldt may be winningly shallow asEmma, dressed in chic costumes and looking fabulously leggy, butdespite a solid cast there’s something that doesn’t quite gelabout Cram’s portrayal of cracking family dynamics amongst richupper-class white women.
Despite the characters’ conflicted emotions abouttheir surroundings and their places in the world at large, Cram’swriting keeps the play from ever truly addressing what’s outsidethe walls of Emma’s apartment. We never see Alejandro when he’snot subject to Emma’s pity. Instead, we hear the bickering of tworather disillusioned women as they dip into a pint of Haagen-Dazssorbet at the play’s end, exclaiming that, "in the novelversion," they’d be eating gelato.
In the play version, ifwe’re following their conceit, the richness of what they’reeating hardly seems to matter. It’s all fluff to us, no matterhow much burdensome self-importance Cram attempts to unload onthe play’s shoulders. I was craving a glimpse of the main coursethat led up to this rather flawed dessert.