A Lifetime Burning

Off-Broadway, Play

Theatre: 59E59 Theatres | Company: Primary Stages

Jennifer Westfeldt, left, and Christina Kirk in A Lifetime Burning. Photo by Sara Krulwich.

BOTTOM LINE: An interesting, well-told story of relationships, life, and the truth therein. A woman makes up her own story in an attempt to salvage her life.

Have you ever wished you could reinvent yourself? Have you contemplated what your life would be like if only this or that had or hadn’t happened to you? A fruitless wonder...that is of course...unless you succeed. Cusi Cram’s A Lifetime Burning stars Jennifer Westfeldt as Emma, a young, spoiled but troubled woman who decides to reinvent her life and call it a memoir, and Christina Kirk as Tess, her older sister, who calls her out on it. The play opens in a gorgeous, modern, newly decorated loft (thanks to a hefty advance from a book publisher) with a stunned, stuttering Tess berating Emma for her bold-faced lies. From there we learn that truth is stranger than fiction. Loyalty, truth and the questions of normalcy in life are all included in Cram’s compelling story. With excellent performances and expert direction, A Lifetime Burning is a play to ponder.

The plot is loosely based on the real-life scandal of Margaret Seltzer, a woman who wrote a critically acclaimed memoir of her life as a mixed ethnicity gang member in South Central L.A., raised by foster families and gang-bangers. Shortly after its release, Seltzer’s sister contacted the publisher and revealed the entire memoir as fiction. In A Lifetime Burning, Emma is a trust-fund baby who volunteers as a tutor for underprivileged youths. When Emma takes their truths and makes them her own, Tess is outraged, asking Emma what she thinks will happen when everyone discovers the truth? Emma retorts with “What is truth?” An existential conundrum that sends Tess reeling.

Cram’s dialogue quips along and is loaded with observational and social humor as well as depth. For example, at one moment Emma proclaims she is an “alcorexic,” a modern woman who spends her caloric intake drinking alcohol rather than eating, then later she shares the disheartening realization that she can’t even make up a happy ending for herself. Another example is when one character poignantly points out that memoirs became more popular than novels when the American imagination failed. It is Cram’s naturalistic dialogue and keen awareness of not only social modes but human psychology, the ups and downs, that make her characters so well-rounded.

Bringing those characters to life beautifully are the four stellar actors that make up the ensemble. Kirk and Westfeldt are yin and yang in flaxen hair and designer duds. A perfect balance, bouncing off one another, matching but never overpowering until one of them goes in for the win. When Kirk is on fire, Westfeldt is cool. When Westfeldt is teetering, Kirk is as steady as a sniper. While they exhibit anger toward each other, there is a sisterly love that both fuels and quenches the fire of their rivalry.

Rounding out the story are Raul Castillo as Alejandro and Isabel Keating as Lydia Freemantle. Castillo grounds the cast in something more somber and simple. While his character’s upbringing is untamed and represents something the opposite of trust-funds and refined living, Castillo is quiet, solid, and strong. This is a stark contrast to the sisters who although they are as cultivated as can be, yell at each other, have unstable lives, and are fragile even though they hide it quite well from each other. Keating, on the other hand, is as cool as a cucumber. The modern, self-sufficient, epitome of success, she is everything the two sisters wish they were and nothing that they are. Waltzing in like the Queen of England and meaning it, Keating owned the stage with a such a commanding presence that even the designer Zeisel coffee table bowed to her. Her comedic timing is flawless and she brings an underplayed humor to lighten weighty moments.

Director Pam MacKinnon seamlessly weaves between the present and flashbacks within the story. Details such as which wine bottle exists in the present and which wine bottle is a figment of the past are so specific that the dreamlike state of flashback and memory moments are as clean as a dissolve on film, (aided by a beautiful lighting design by David Weiner). MacKinnon’s decision to have the characters remain on stage as they watch the memories unfold is powerful and surreal, while still being grounded in realism. Her pacing is to be applauded. She handles this script with such ease that you forget that there was a director shaping it all because everything was so clean and never seemed premeditated.

A quality production, A Lifetime Burning is a play told by a collaborative team of great storytellers. We all acquire a million stories in each of our pasts that create the memories of life. A life of truth in lies and lies in truth, “half love, half hope, half true” (lyrics from One Less Reason’s, A Lifetime Burning). Each story of the past gives way to the next, creating the moments, maybe even the memoirs, of a person’s life. “All our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle,” - but until then, as Cram testifies, it remains a lifetime burning.

(A Lifetime Burning plays at Primary Stages, 59E59 Theaters, Theatre A, 59 East 59th Street between Madison & Park. The show plays through September 5, Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm, also Wednesday & Saturday at 2pm. The show runs 1 hour 15 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $60. For tickets and more info visit