Friday, August 14, 2009

A Lifetime Burning (Primary Stages)

A Lifetime Burning
Primary Stages
August 8, 2009
Cusi Cram (writer)
Pam MacKinnon (director)

A Lifetime Burning is one of those dramas about rich New Yorkers in crisis: not my favorite genre. But it's got a few saving graces, especially a performance by Jennifer Westfeldt that spackles over the cracks in her character. She's Emma, a blonde socialite in a swank Soho apartment (gorgeously decorated by Kris Stone) who's fabricated an impoverished East Harlem childhood for her glossy new memoir.

The reason Lifetime works as a play is that playwright Cusi Cram actually dramatizes her characters' intelligence. Where most playwrights suggest smarts by plugging characters' mouths with facts and wit, Cram's therapized New Yorkers deduce each other's motivations by observing behavior. Cram provides fodder for these deductions by nesting flashbacks within a confrontation between Emma and her bourgeois sister. The structure works better than the plot itself, which climaxes with Emma confessing her most recent spiral was triggered by a romance (with a teen from East Harlem—see how that connects?) that ended in date rape and, later, an abortion.

Emma's a little too diffuse to be a great role, but Westfeldt draws the loose strands together. Her seesawing emotions and febrile impulsiveness imply that Emma's white-hot intellect is inseparable from the curdled chemical cocktail of her mind. And director Pam MacKinnon is one of the Off-Broadway's best: the show's a la mode tone is essential to its pleasure, while its momentum keeps the playful structure clear. In its brisk 90 minutes, A Lifetime Burning satisfies an audience without testing our patience.


A Lifetime Burning plays at 59E59 (59 E. 59th Street) thru September 5. Tickets?

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