Must we feel sorry for the wealthy and bored? Cusi Cram says yes with “A Lifetime Burning,” a play redeemed in execution from its unpromising premise. That premise may simply be the writer’s challenge to herself: Cram takes the unenviable job of humanizing a wealthy memoirist, who writes movingly about her nonexistent minority ancestry, and said memoirist’s shrill, judgmental sister. Depending on how anxious you are to pity the fortunate, the play is either an instant winner or a slow burn, but all are likely to dig fabulous perfs from leads Christina Kirk and Jennifer Westfeldt under Pam MacKinnon’s nimble direction.
“A Lifetime Burning,” which takes its title from the second poem (“East Coker”) in T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” starts out by knocking Emma (she of the fictional autobiography, played by a terrific Westfeldt) down a peg or two. This is a girl, after all, who describes herself as “drunkorexic,” meaning she is on a liquid diet and the liquids in question are all alcoholic. So it’s gratifying when the first thing we see is Tess (an even better Kirk), who looks like she wants to slap a coma into Emma for about 80 of the play’s 90 minutes.
“You’re like a maze inside a thimble!” she screams at her sister, who seems to be taking it all in stride, due to having spent most of her six-figure advance on her newly chic apartment. This particularly rankles sis, who writes for a mag called Luxurious Homes and recognizes every elegantly appointed furnishing in the apartment.
As Emma smugly soaks up Tess’ insults, we’re treated to the first of many phone interruptions as Tess’ twin hellions interrupt with a call from their father’s house. The one-sided phone-conversation gag is an oldie but a goodie, and Cram milks it for all it’s worth with pause-filled lines like “No. No ice cream. I am not being tyrannical. Or ‘like Hitler.’ ”
Slowly, though, we begin to see both that Tess is a deeply angry person who tears into anyone within shouting distance and that Emma really is unhappy. The latter feels her own uselessness as keenly as anyone around her, and her attempts to do something worthwhile with her life, like tutoring for 10 hours a week, are touchingly pathetic.
We are invited, in other words, inside the heads of these characters, and MacKinnon and the cast make the invitation so attractive it’s easy and gratifying to just go along with it. There are nagging questions here, though, and they nag louder as the play progresses.
Emma really is shallow, and the touristy liaison with her student Alejandro (a smart Raul Castillo) that sets off her desire to tell his story makes her seem more obnoxious, not less. Would a privileged rich girl writing a novel about the struggles of a poor Peruvian (her original pitch) sound that much less offensive than the memoir her unscrupulous publisher (a very funny Isabel Keating) cajoles her into writing?
Ultimately, Cram asks us to side with Emma, for all her faults, and that may be too large a request. It’s sad that she can’t seem to get her life on track, but it ain’t that sad, and Emma’s bipolar disorder seems largely cosmetic, as though the playwright knew she was asking a lot of her audience and needed to play the illness card to get some of the requisite sympathy.
If that sounds like a harsh judgment, it’s mostly because this play is written at a level that asks to be judged alongside major work, rather than with journeyman scripts by relatively new writers. Cram’s characterizations are full, and her dialogue is largely unimpeachable (minus a couple of self-pitying asides from Emma near the play’s end), so the flaws stick out by comparison to the rest of the carefully worked piece. If it’s not a perfect play, it’s also not one that should be missed.