Cusi Crams fictional siblings spar, jab amid suspicions, sex
glib, sassy, lemon-flavored comedy has ambition to burn
By Jerry Tallmer
Cusi Cram didnt know what shed done until shed done it that is to say, until she was halfway through writing a play centered around two sisters named (out of thin air) Tess and Emma.
Tess and Emma! Thomas Hardy and Gustave Flaubert! English literature, French literature! Why of course the parents who had so messed up the lives of these two siblings (just by ushering them into the world) should be a couple of late, unlamented professors of literature at Sarah Lawrence.
The very title of the play itself, A Lifetime Burning, has been plucked out of T.S. Eliots Four Quartets.
And there are other dibs and dabs throughout; a housekeeper named Mrs. Pierce, whose summarizing line (Weve endured) harks back to, well, great literature.
New Yorks Primary Stages opens its 25th anniversary season a season celebrating women playwrights with the world premiere of Cusi Crams A Lifetime Burning.
The plays four characters, sparring and jabbing away under Pam MacKinnons direction, are self-involved nuthouse-prone Emma (Jennifer Westfeldt) aspiring writer and occupant of a Mott Street loft made possible by the money Daddy secretly left her; no less self-involved Tess (Christina Kirk), Emmas sober-sided older sister who now bitterly regrets having opted for marriage, comfort, kids, the suburbs; Alejandro (Raul Castillo), Emmas 19-year-old East Harlem sex toy; and British-born Lydia Freemantle (Isabel Keating), a cold-blooded, highly successful, Chanel-garbed book editor.
There in her loft, with its $4,000 Eva Zeisel coffee table and Noguchi sofa, Emma has thought up a source of income once Daddys dough runs out. She will write in fact she has written a book-length memoir about her struggle as a part-Inca, part-Cherokee slum-bred waif who rose up from the street and drugs and rape and hunger and everything terrible in East Harlem.
Lydia Freemantle will publish it in fact has published it, to the tune of several million best-selling copies (and even more millions of resultant dollars).
Then the truth hits the fan and Lydia Freemantle wants the money back. And you dont play games with Lydia Freemantle, even in the cheap, mass-market Payless shoes that so fascinated Lydia when Emma first walked in the door.
Thereby lies a play. An often quite glib, quite sassy, quite with it lemon-flavored comedy.
TESS: We are the stars of our own stupid movies.
EMMA: So, Im just a walk-on in your movie?
TESS: If only
You and Alejandro went dancing. And he made you an honorary Inca?
EMMA: The story doesnt go in order
LYDIA FREEMANTLE [before the exposure]: Emma darling, fiction is for writers
If you want to be a novelist keep doing that and come back to me in two years, five years, ten years
Write your Proustian moment about race and identity in New York that all comes together in an East Harlem Starbucks
Please by all means do it, someone has to.
LYDIA FREEMANTLE [after the exposure]: So, we have documented proof that over [the] last 15 years Emma has been institutionalized at least five times for bipolar disorder.
EMMA: I prefer manic depressive. Bi polar sounds like something a sexually ambiguous bear suffers from.
And thats before Alejandro, infuriated at being used, throws Emma down and screws her rapes her his way, on that $4,000 Eva Zeisel coffee table. There is, by the way, a real Eva Zeisel. Shes 103 years old, and came to a rehearsal to see her coffee table.
During an interview, this journalist had occasion to say to Ms. Cram that hed read A Lifetime Burning not once, but twice.
The first time I thought it was a smartass play.
The second time I thought it was a smartass play with smarts.
I like smarts, the playwright said with satisfaction.
She had written this one very quickly a first draft in seven weeks. Indeed, she had set it as a model in the Fast First Draft playwriting course she conducts at Primary Stages on West 38th Street and, summers, upstate.
The spark for the whole thing had been a 2008 story in The New York Times about a woman named Margaret Seltzer whod had to own up the fakery of her best-selling memoir Love and Consequences (about growing up as a part-Cherokee member of a tough South Central Los Angeles gang). Her sister turned her in as a fraud.
There was also the James Frey fake-memoir worldwide scandal, and many others that followed. Every six months a new one; almost an epidemic, says Cusi Cram.
Theres also been a lot of loss in my own life in the last couple of years, says the playwright whose mother (Lady Jeanne Campbell) died in the fall of 2007.
Yes, the Lady Jeanne Campbell who was married for 10 minutes well, a couple of years to Norman Mailer. The one whom Mailer proudly used to say was his toughest wife.
Lady Jeanne Campbell, also the mother of actress Kate Mailer (Cusi Crams very close half-sister), was a red-faced force of nature whom youd never forget if youd ever met her; a force of nature who, it was alleged, had gone to bed with John F, Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev, and Fidel Castro in one single year.
She may not have been the most responsible mother, says daughter Cusi, but she sure was fun. Joie de vivre.
And who was Cusi Crams father?
Thats really a complicated question, says Cusi.
She herself, at any rate, was born September 22, 1967 in the old, no-longer-existing LeRoy Hospital on East 61st Street (a place people used to go to dry out.). She grew up on 72nd Street between first and Second Avenues and now lives in the West Village with husband Peter Hirsch a writer and producer of the PBS childrens program Arthur (Cusi writes for it too.) Weve known each other since I was 10.
Norman Mailer has gone now too. Any thoughts?
Norman was always very, very nice to me.
Somebody could write a play about all this, dont you think? Maybe somebody will. As Lydia Freemantle is far from the first to point out, truth is stranger than fiction.