Christina Kirk and Jennifer Westfeldt
in A Lifetime Burning
(© James Leynse)
Christina Kirk and Jennifer Westfeldt
in A Lifetime Burning
(© James Leynse)
Initially, Cusi Cram's A Lifetime Burning, now premiering at Primary Stages, seems like a comedy of manners that's been ripped from the headlines. As the play begins, Tess (Christina Kirk) confronts her sister Emma (Jennifer Westfeldt) about an article in The New York Times that focuses on Emma's forthcoming book, a memoir in which she examines her feelings about her mixed-race heritage and her struggle with bipolar disorder. In the book, however, she claims to be also part Incan and part Cherokee, instead of 100 percent Irish. 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.

Emma's desire to explore issues of race in her book has been fueled by her relationship with Alejandro (Raúl Castillo), a young man that she's worked with as a volunteer tutor. During her time with him, both as a mentor and as a lover, Emma has come to feel a kinship with his sense of alienation in society. As the play progresses, the nature of how stories can be appropriated expands beyond Emma's use of Alejandro's ethnicity. In addition, as Emma and Tess drink excessively in Emma's posh loft apartment (rendered with style by scenic designer Kris Stone), 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. When Emma asks Lydia (Isabel Keating), the haughty publisher who buys Emma's book, why memoirs are so popular, Lydia responds "...the American imagination failed. The average reader can envision something if they believe it really happened. Make believe -- too challenging."

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. As Emma, Westfeldt rises to the challenges of the script beautifully, delivering a nuanced performance that charms and intrigues, particularly when her dark eyes sparkle and her mouth curls to a self-satisfied Cheshire Cat-grin. Bravely, she also embraces some of Emma's less attractive qualities -- quixotic willfulness and even spitefulness -- with aplomb. These latter traits occasionally make Emma slightly infuriating, but she's never anything but endearing in Westfeldt's capable hands.

Meanwhile. Keating, looking gorgeous in vintage couture as imagined by costume designer Theresa Squire, channels Maggie Smith at her most acerbically hilarious. And Kirk's turn as Tess evokes laughs early on and eventually tugs heartstrings as it becomes clear how much of an impact Emma's disease has had on Tess' life.