Review - A Lifetime Burning: The Irrelevance of Being Earnest

I'll readily admit to letting out a quiet, though not exactly inaudible, "Wow," as I entered the main auditorium at 59E59 and took a first glimpse at Kris Stone's New York apartment set for Primary Stages' premiere production of Cusi Cram's A Lifetime Burning. The high-ceilinged collection of sharp angles, backed by exposed brick, colored in blue pastel and embellished by furnishings by Eva Zeisel (I had to look it up), immediately grabbed my interest and had me anxious to meet whomever it was who might be living there.

Unfortunately, the apartment's occupant and her associates turn out to be not nearly as interesting. And while Cram's story of an author who falsifies her life story, though familiar, has the potential to still up some interest in its intermissionless ninety minutes, the author does herself in by making the play a vehicle for pull-out quotes that work hard to be witty; having the characters taking turns at sounding like the author's mouthpiece ("You are Bell Jar in the city." "How Greco-Roman of you.") rather than fully-developed people. The play may get its title from T.S. Eliot but the overwritten evening (frequently, but not always, saved by Pam Mackinnon's efficient direction) suffers from its aspirations to be Oscar Wilde's American cousin.

Emma (Jennifer Westfeldt) seems to have all the necessary qualities to become a best-selling author; she's young, pretty, articulate and has a sexy title for her book, Bipolar, With Style. But she's also noticed the dwindling balance of the trust fund she's been living on. So when her sister Tess (Christina Kirk) confronts her after reading a New York Times feature on her upcoming memoir that mentions her ethnic background as being one-quarter Inca and one-quarter Cherokee and her upbringing as underserved and at-risk, the 100% Irish lass explains that the facts come from the life of Alejandro (Raul Castillo), the sexy student who she tutors at a volunteer center. She insists that his is an important story that needs to be heard, but there's a much better chance of people listening if they think it's the story of this pretty, young blonde.

While Tess' marital struggles and Emma's casual relationship with Raul enter the mix, the play never really takes off unless Isabel Keating, as Emma's publisher Lydia, is on stage making a verbal feast of such flavorless crumbs as, "We're not The New Yorker. We cannot fact check every last detail." Her droll delivery and fabulous presence in Theresa Squire's Chanel-inspired creations provide the kind of performance that makes audiences antsy for her return whenever she's off stage.

Westfeldt, on the other hand, seems to be working so hard on subtle nuances of her character that the basic flesh and blood barely projects itself and lines like, "I think I'm becoming a drunk-o-rexic," seem to slip out of her with little effect. Castillo does fine without a lot to work with and Kirk seems saddled by the unexplained choIce To give her character a stutter.

By the time the far-too-long final scene is in place and the sisters are quietly bonding by quoting Philip Larkin's infamous verse about your mum and dad, A Lifetime Burning has barely set a spark

Photos by James Leynse: Top: Christina Kirk and Jennifer Westfeldt; Bottom: Isabel Keating

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