A Lifetime Burning

  • Date:
    August 1, 2009
    Review by:
    Tulis McCall

    Well, this play is just a slow train wreck. You can�t believe it�s happening and you can�t believe your watching.

    This is the story of a trust fund baby who writes a fictitious memoir. That�s what the press release says, and I guess they are sticking to the story. Except that this story is sort of sprinkled over the surface of the play like so much fish food that becomes water logged and sinks to the bottom of the tank.

    The opening scene spells trouble when we find the two sisters, Emma (Jennifer Westfeldt) and Tess (Christina Kirk) locked in an argument in which Tess is repeating herself just to get kick started. We do this all the time when we are in a state of shock or disbelief. That repetition thing buys us time. Here, however, the repetitions fall flat because they are delivered with all the vibrancy of a funeral director, which is too bad because there are a lot of them.

    There are also a lot of clever moments in the writing of the cross-examination.

    TESS: I would appreciate details.
    EMMA: Like an "explication du texte". That's where you go through the text word by word, parse every last syllable.
    TESS: You're evading.
    EMMA: I'm EXPLICATING.
    TESS: Details. Facts. WHY! WHY!/WHY!
    EMMA: I thought this might irk you.
    TESS: Thought? Might? Irk? IRK/ is what someone who bumps into you on the subway does.

    But clever bits that are not connected to more clever bits do not a good play make.

    While there is a big push to tell us what this play is about, we never really get the information to support the premise. We find out that Emma has worked with at-risk Latino youth after school. She even had an affair with one, Alejandro (Ra�l Castillo ) after she crosses the boundary between student and tutor. Emma is manic-depressive and has been for years. Through a friend of a friend she meets Lydia Freemantle (Isabel Keating) who is a goddess in the publishing world. Within three minutes of meeting Emma, Lydia�s advice is to write a memoir and add a few racial tones while she is at it. When Lydia discovers the book is all lies, her best suggestion is that Emma admit to writing it while she was off her meds � and live to fight another day. And finally, what we also never understand clearly is what was IN the book. So the entire kafuffle of a play never has a reason to exist.

    Who we really get to know is Emma�s sister, Tess. Tess is the one who took over and was not allowed to fall apart when their parents died. Now, Tess is going through a divorce because she got caught having an affair with her male au pair. Her about to be ex-husband is a man who wants full custody of the children so that he doesn�t have to pay child support. The children are at that cute age where acting out is their occupation. While Mom is off visiting the two darlings poison the pug by feeding her grapes.

    Mystifying writing this is. So many juicy tidbits tossed out and none followed by a full-blown story. In the last scene, which was oddly wonderful and revealing, the two sisters lament on their unsatisfactory lives and the parents who died when the sisters were in their teens. It made me perk up because I was hearing a story with legs.

    Cram seems to not be listening to the stories that are right in front of her. Instead she has tossed everything overboard and replaced it with Emma�s new found philosophy that, �Fiction isn't real enough anymore,� and succeeded in proving this premise mightily.

    Tulis McCall
     

    "unwieldy if intermittently amusing"
    Charles Isherwood
    New York Times

    "stylish but inconsequential comedy"
    Joe Dziemianowicz
    New York Daily News

    "YOU know a play isn't working when the main thing it inspires is real estate envy."
    Frank Scheck
    New York Post

    "The slippery nature of truth is examined with wit and insight"
    David Sheward
    Back Stage

    "intelligent and provocative, but it's also flawed and inconsistent"
    Roma Torre
    NY1

    "dark and exhaustingly cerebral comedy"
    Peter Santilli
    Associated Press

    "If it's not a perfect play, it's also not one that should be missed."
    Sam Thielman
    Variety