A Lifetime Burning


59E59 Theatres

The age-old question:  Who is happiest, the late-thirties sister with her feet on the ground in her painful reality or the early-thirties one with the invented life and its travails.  Playwright Cusi Cram cannot answer it any better than all who have tried over the millennia, but she sure can write a play!

Emma, artfully played by Jennifer Westfeldt, manufactures exotic experiences from the mundane and writes them as memoir rather than fiction.  Sister Tess, played by Christina Kirk, is in an ending marriage, full of the well-visited traumas of middle class suburban life:  impending divorce, difficult relationships with her kids.  We don’t know, and don’t need to know, how Emma experiences her fantasy;  whether she lives it in real time or just fantasizes as most people do when they would rather be somewhere else or with someone else.  Is sex with a god really sublime?  Probably.  Does Alejandro fill that bill?  Yes, but only in the bedroom where his morph to divine is just two closed eyes away.

A young, inappropriate Hispanic lad becomes Emma’s lover, but he loses his common New York Latino roots and becomes part Incan god.  She herself is part Incan and part Cherokee–no, wait a minute, she is 100% Irish; I got caught up in Emma’s fantasy for a sec…

So Tess confronts Emma, seeing the future when her “memoir” is discovered to be fabricated and focuses on Emma’s bi-polarity and not taking her meds.  Fair enough.  The new furniture, purchased with a hefty publisher’s advance, will have to go back.  (n.b. The hand made designer coffee table, centerpiece of the set, is genuine;  a gift from the centenarian artist.)

Again, who is happiest?  Lydia, the cynical, á la mode publisher?  Either sister?  Or is it perhaps boy toy Alejandro who, while he will not get the loving relationship he had hoped for, at least gets laid?  Let’s not get started on ‘what is happiness?’ in any case…

Flashes of snappy dialog and mostly excellent acting.  Ms Westfeldt, Ms. Kirk  and Isabel Keating as Lydia Freemantle pretty much get their characters.  Raúl Castillo as Alejandro is less complex and has little opportunity to show acting ability which I sense is a good thing in the company of these actresses.

But the simplicity of his role as boy toy/god – how hard can that be to play?  Have an ethnic look, street dialect, buff body and act bewildered in the face of complex neurotic relationships.  Heck, that is daily stuff.  Bewilderment becomes frustration becomes machismo.  End of role.

Ms. Westfeldt neither under nor overplays her part and is good enough to be believably afflicted.  In the last scene her blank stare emulates a disturbed state disturbingly realistically. 

In the end “normal” Tess cannot bring off the abandonment of Emma, and her loyalty to her sister – tears and all – rings true.  Their hellish lives are somehow better with each other in them.  In the end they share the risky female business of sweet desserts.  Emma, ever the fantasist and apparently reconciled to recasting memoir as novel, says that in the novel it will be gelato, not sorbet.

Some nicely subtle direction by Pam MacKinnon:  When Tess is cast as silent observer, she is in motion only enough to be present in the scene.  Never upstaging, but neither disappearing into the background. Very effective. 

Overall well-written, well-directed and very well acted.  Nifty set with the aforementioned madly expensive coffee table.

It is refreshing, too, to hear an acoustic play in a well constructed and laid out theatre.  Steep grading allows one to sit behind a basketball player and still see the stage.

Microphones in large Broadway theatres are de rigueur, a necessary evil, but I still enjoyed listening to unamplified, unenhanced voices.

Good theatre, good company, good play.