Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Lifetime Burning


By Cusi Cram. Directed by Pam MacKinnon. At 59E59. (CLOSED)

"Mouth-watering" (New York Times), "Gorgeous" (New York Post), "The last word in designer chic" (Light&Sound) -- these are just a few of the words critics have lavished on Kris Stone's set design for A Lifetime Burning. As the ill-gotten spoils from a fake-memoir book contract, this expensive interior figures prominently in Cusi Cram's play about a pampered, bipolar woman named Emma (Jennifer Westfeldt). Critics are similarly excited by Emma's tipsy tussles with her disapproving sister, Tess (Christina Kirk). Perhaps for this same reason, they also want a more developed familial conflict in place of the meta-meta narrative and what-is-reality-anyway meanderings that Cram has apparently crammed into the story's ninety minutes. Director Pam MacKinnon gets oddly dichotomous reviews for either unifying the above or failing to do so and the acting and design get mostly high marks all around. Some reviewers prefer Westfeldt's Emma to Kirk's Tess but just as many side the other way, which makes for an interesting spread of critical response below. At the end of the day, it's Emma's play and the final test for recommendation seems to come down to whether you experience her as something more than a cipher. But then, speaking as a critic of critics reviewing a play inspired by a real-life fraud fiction-memoir ... maybe Emma should be a cipher?

Backstage A
(David Sheward) The slippery nature of truth is examined with wit and insight in Cusi Cram's play "A Lifetime Burning," ... Family history and social commentary are seamlessly interwoven in the sharp dialogue as the two sarcastically joust ... Emma could easily have come across as a spoiled brat, but Jennifer Westfeldt pulls off an admirable feat of acting legerdemain by making us care for this hot box of crazy ... Christina Kirk is equally skillful in adding dimension to a potentially narrow character ... Isabel Keating nearly steals the show as Lydia, the sharklike publisher ... Raúl Castillo makes Alejandro, the hunky Latino lover, more than just a hot guy, painfully exposing the character's disappointment when he discovers Emma has been using him. Pam MacKinnon's fluid staging handles the transitions between the present, the past, and Emma's imagination with nary a bump, aided by David Weiner's subtle lighting and the set by Kris Stone, which is as chic and stylish as Cram's elegant script.

CurtainUp A-
(Simon Saltzman) Under Pam MacKinnon’s excellent direction the 90 minute play crackles with wittily edged vitriol ... 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 ... 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 ... This play is certain to create a buzz, if not in publishing circles, then in this new theater season.

Associated Press B
(Peter Santilli) Cram appears to distance herself from any clear-cut stance in this ethical debate that serves, at times tiresomely, as the core of her play. But in pitting her characters in shouting matches against one another, she methodically weaves a family drama with gratifying depth and truth ... In the early scenes, the bickering floats between humorous and wearisome, but later gains poignancy as we discover more about Emma and what caused her to write the fake memoir ... This richly textured portrait of two sisters' relationship makes this play compelling, despite the gloom of their predicament. Isabel Keating provides lighthearted relief in the role of Lydia, the sweetly jaded publishing magnate who signed Emma. Her ridiculously highfalutin' rants are the funniest thing about this somewhat glum comedy, which is directed by Pam MacKinnon.

Lighting & Sound America B
(David Barbour) As long as the author, Cusi Cram, is aiming poison darts at her self-obsessed characters, A Lifetime Burning is gleeful, malicious fun ... Overall, Pam McKinnon's staging works reasonably within the play's limits. Jennifer Westfeldt's charm and solid comic timing help to fend off our nagging questions about Emma until relatively late. As Tess, Christina Kirk gets her laughs, although I wish her line readings were a little less emphatic. Raul Castillo's likeability goes a long way toward making Alejandro a credible character. As Lydia, Isabel Keating pockets every scene she's in ... [E]ven if A Lifetime Burning goes awry, it's the work of a real talent, and Primary Stages is doing us all a favor by giving Cram a New York showcase.

Variety B
(Sam Thielman) Must we feel sorry for the wealthy and bored? Cusi Cram says yes with "A Lifetime Burning," a play redeemed in execution from its unpromising premise. That premise may simply be the writer's challenge to herself: Cram takes the unenviable job of humanizing a wealthy memoirist, who writes movingly about her nonexistent minority ancestry, and said memoirist's shrill, judgmental sister. Depending on how anxious you are to pity the fortunate, the play is either an instant winner or a slow burn, but all are likely to dig fabulous perfs from leads Christina Kirk and Jennifer Westfeldt under Pam MacKinnon's nimble direction.

The Village Voice B-
(Michael Feingold) 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 ... 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.

Theatre Mania B-
(Andy Propst) Cram's play is about much more than falsifying one's past in print, but even as the piece engages and amuses, it also strains under the weight of Cram's ambitiousness ... Burning becomes a distaff American riff on Irish plays where alcohol spurs the revelation of secrets and long-simmering resentments. Perhaps best of all, the play is also a terrific indictment of the reality-obsessed culture in which we live ... Unfortunately, Cram stumbles with her rich mixture of themes and stories; the play also tackles Tess' disintegrating marriage, the nature of opposites attracting, and eventually, the reality of the childhood that the sisters shared. While Pam MacKinnon's direction is zestful, it never successfully unifies the sometimes bewildering array of ideas and themes Cram has included in the piece. Still, the cast's grand performances make it almost possible to overlook Cram's excessive writing.

New York Times C
(Charles Isherwood) Ms. Cram’s play, directed by Pam MacKinnon, moves awkwardly from a protracted, boozy set-to between the sisters to scenes in which Emma’s recent history is enacted in flashbacks ... Also lumpy is the characterization of Emma, whose history of mental problems is referred to repeatedly but never cogently dramatized ... Oh well. The barbed animosity between the sisters makes for pleasurable viewing, anyway. Ms. Westfeldt’s Emma retains her purring poise despite a barrage of angry recriminations from her sister, all sputtering confusion and outrage in Ms. Kirk’s funny and frazzled portrayal. The dialogue crackles with snappy sarcasms ... “A Lifetime Burning” tries to blend far too many tones, plotlines and ideas into a brisk 90 minutes of theater, resulting in a play that never delves beneath the surface of its glibly spoken characters and topical story.

Bloomberg C
(John Simon) To make the plot mystify more profusely -- as in the account of Emma’s evolving affair with Alejandro (whose English can be astoundingly expert) -- we are sometimes unsure whether a given scene is actually happening, or related with possible embellishments by Emma, or merely fantasized by Tess. What then, you ask, is positive here? Frequently clever dialogue, savvy direction by Pam MacKinnon, and good acting from Jennifer Westfeldt (Emma), Christina Kirk (Tess), Isabel Keating (Lydia) and Raul Castillo (Alejandro). Kris Stone’s spiffy set, Theresa Squire’s apt costumes and David Weiner’s versatile lighting make substantial contributions.

Time Out New York C-
(Helen Shaw) At its center (and at its best), Cusi Cram’s A Lifetime Burning is a tart martini made of vermouth and vitriol ... Tantalizing hints gleam throughout that perhaps Cram intended something more subversive and metatheatrical—when scenes seemed flat, I wanted it to be evidence of Emma’s weak imagination, not Cram’s. However, aside from one half-hearted attempt to tinker with the world of the play, Cram plays it disappointingly safe. Westfeldt, badly overloaded, gives a repetitive, soggy performance, and Cram’s humor almost doesn’t survive her. But Kirk—bless her bizarre, syncopated delivery—saves the day.

Talkin' Broadway D
(Matthew Murray) 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 ... 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. Nor, unfortunately, is Emma so developed that you can accept this as part of a larger framework of characterization ... 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? ... 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.

New York Post D
(Frank Scheck) In Cusi Cram's "A Lifetime Burning," it's hard to concentrate on the plot -- about a young writer who writes a sensational but fictitious memoir -- when all you can think about is Kris Stone's gorgeous apartment setting, a homage to Design Within Reach ... Inspired by Margaret Seltzer's discredited "Love and Consequences" (James Frey's the one name-checked), the play focuses less on its juicy premise than on the relationship between Emma and her journalist sister Tess (a terrific Christina Kirk) ... Not helping matters is Westfeldt's unconvincing performance. Even with the dire state of the publishing industry, it's hard to imagine her character could have fooled anyone into thinking she survived anything tougher than a fall off of her trust fund. D-
(Martin Denton) The tone of the play is self-congratulatorily cynical, as if just knowing that most of your choices are misguided and borderline malevolent somehow excuses them. These are not people I enjoyed spending time with. Nor was I much convinced of their plausibility ... Director Pam MacKinnon keeps things moving, but her work has its lapses as well ... I've seen several new plays this summer in which people with means—looks, intelligence, money, education, youth—seem entirely unable to pull themselves out of ruts of their own devising: I know the Recession is hitting everybody hard, but let's face it, there are people a lot worse off than Emma the Lonely Bipolar Wannabe Writer. Frankly, her story didn't interest me very much—and nothing that happened during the 90 minutes of A Lifetime Burning changed my mind.

Backstage A 13; CurtainUp A- 12; AP B 10; Lighting & Sound America B 10; Variety B 9; Village Voice B- 9; TheatreMania B- 9; New York Times C 7; Bloomberg C 7; Time Out New York C- 6; Talkin' Broadway D 4; New York Post D 4; D- 3. TOTAL: 103/13 = 7.92 (C+)


jan@broadwayandme said...

I’m a big fan of your site and often refer it to friends. But at times I’m confused by it. There are many more reviews for A Lifetime Burning (AP, Backstage, CurtainUp, Theatermania) than you list here. I don’t know if including them would change the play’s overall grade but is it fair to determine one on such a small number of reviews? I also find it difficult to determine how you assign your scores to each review. Is Charles Isherwood’s take on the play really all that different from Sam Thielman’s? What makes the New York Times grade a C, instead of a B- or C+? Again, I’m a fan and I really appreciate all the work that you guys put into this. I’m just rooting for you to make it even better.

Karl Miller said...

Hi Jan!

I will be incorporating the new reviews this afternoon. We have a 5 review minimum rule for the Meter and I jumped too soon to post this last night without checking for newer ones.

As for the difference between Thielman and Isherwood ... it's a tough balance. Both critics (in fact, almost all of the critics) liked the interplay between Emma and Tess as acted by Westfeldt and Kirk. But Thielman and Isherwood differ on the proportion or worth this asset grants the whole production.

Thielman's review starts out sounding more critical than Isherwood's and Isherwood's starts out as a non-critical discussion of the subjects in the play. But then Thielman ends by saying that the "flaws stick out by comparison to the rest of the carefully worked piece" and "If it's not a perfect play, it's also not one that should be missed." That closing statement recommends the show despite the preceding criticism.

Isherwood, by contrast, ends his review by saying the play "tries to blend far too many tones, plotlines, and ideas into a brisk ninety minutes of theatre, resulting in a play that never delves beneath the surface of its glibly spoken characters and topical story."

Isherwood also calls MacKinnon's direction "awkward" and "not particularly smooth," while Thielman applauds MacKinnon for making the production "so attractive it's easy and gratifying to just go along with it."

I try to think of the grades as more ordinal than nominal -- they place different critics next to each other rather than above or below each other, if that makes any sense. I'm also relatively new to the Meter so I'm always trying to sharpen my reading/analytical skills. Discussions like this one, where I get to take a second look at what I've read and written, help a ton, Jan, so thank you for helping out!

all the best,

Anonymous said...

Just for the record, Cram is not a child of Norman Mailer---her mother was married to him.

Karl Miller said...

Okay, I think I've finally figured this out. One interview suggested that Mailer was, at one point, her step-father, but the Wikipedia chronology doesn't bear this out. So I've gone from daughter, to step-daughter, to omitting the connection altogether. Even though the TONY interview mentions Mailer's "shadow." I'm sorry for the confusion.

Anonymous said...

The characters in this play made no sense. The supposedly barely literate young Hispanic is well-spoken, sophisticated, and knowledgeable about the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The manic depressive Emma is supremely calm throughout. Her sister Tess is a tiresome screamer, saying such awful things to her husband that you wonder how they ever got married in the first place. The editor makes strange faces that don't seem to relate to her lines.
And, oddly, since the set is so ravishing, the clothes are awful!