Feature

Stage: A Lifetime Burning

Playwright Cusi Cram's dark comedy examines the motivations behind acts of literary fraud.

59E59 Theaters
New York
(212) 279-4200

***

So many “scandals about fiction masquerading as fact” have hit the literary world recently, said Charles Isherwood in The New York Times, that “the embellished memoir has practically become a genre unto itself.” Playwright Cusi Cram uses the transgressions of writers such as James Frey and Margaret Seltzer as a launching point for this dark comedy, which examines the motivations behind such acts of literary fraud. Jennifer Westfeldt stars as Emma, a ­“literary poseur” whose forth­coming “memoir” about her Native American background and “mean streets” upbringing couldn’t be more false. Enter Emma’s sister Tess (Christina Kirk), who over a bottle of vodka threatens to tell the world about Emma’s trust fund and Irish heritage, prompting a full-on sibling war.

The “family drama” aspect of this play is its strong point, said Peter Santilli in the Associated Press. Westfeldt and Kirk fully inhabit their characters, arguing “in a way only two siblings can.” Westfeldt is engaging as the “charmingly manic” Emma, who subsists from day to day “on a dwindling inheritance and a volatile mix of prescription pills and regular cocktails.” Kirk delights as Tess, who it turns out had plenty of issues with her younger sister even before she found out about the fake memoir. Unfortunately, Cram never takes a “clear-cut stance” in the “ethical debate” that forms the play’s foundation. Since the moral dilemma seems inconsequential, the sisters’ arguments become “wearisome.”

There’s an even deeper problem here, said Frank Scheck in the New York Post. It starts with Westfeldt’s performance, which I find wholly “unconvincing.” Her lack of credibility magnifies a major problem with the play’s premise. The audience never buys Emma’s “claims about her ancestry”—after all, she’s a knockout blonde with nothing in her carriage to suggest any sort of former hardship. If she can’t fool us, how can we believe she’s duped her savvy publisher (played here, humorously, by Isabel Keating)? An implausible play about an implausible lie, A Lifetime Burning makes me wonder just who’s fooling whom.

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