A Lifetime Burning
, the new Off Broadway play now showing through September 5 at 59E59 Theaters'
Primary Stages, is a literary, legal and familial tug-of-war unleashed by a memoir that’s more fiction than fact. Inspired by the peculiar case of Margaret Seltzer, a privileged child of the San Fernando Valley who last year published an epic, fabricated memoir involving a life of drugs and South Central Los Angeles gangs, A Lifetime Burning
marks the Off Broadway debut for playwright Cusi Cram, her words given life by no less than Jennifer Westfeldt – the writer and star of the hit film Kissing Jessica Stein
who here steps into the role of a fraudulent manic-depressive memoirist who’s in the midst of being found out by both her agent and sister.
The L Magazine
talked to Westfeldt about her return to the theater, her ever-changing relationship with long-time partner Jon Hamm (of Mad Men
fame), and her unsettling research into the difficulties faced daily by manic-depressives.
The L: Is it stressful at all, to keep jumping between all the various platforms? You were on the big screen with Kissing Jessica Stein and Ira & Abby, you just finished a recurring role on Grey’s Anatomy, and now you’re back on the stage…
I did a small thing at last summer’s New York Stage & Film
, but that was the first time I was on the stage since Wonderful Town
in 2004 [for which she received a Tony nomination], so it’s wonderful to return to something that feels so familiar, and flex those muscles. It helps that this play has such an interesting structure, and goes about telling the story in such an original way. There are such quick transformations and jumps in time, as the story unfolds in both the past and present, and certainly from an actor’s perspective you want to hit all those transitions and have it be perfect. So it’s been challenging on multiple levels.
How did you decide that A Lifetime Burning would be the right work for your return?
I’m great friends with [playwright Cusi Cram]. We met in an acting class in ’94 or ’95, when she was still acting. She’s a wonderful actress, and I had a total talent crush on her. I’ve loved her work ever since, she has a really original and poetic voice, and this piece is incredibly topical, with the stories of James Frey and Margaret Seltzer out there and how blurry the lines have become between reality and fiction. You look at things like reality TV and we’ve arrived at a place where fiction and reality are pretty closely linked, and Cusi’s found a way of writing this that is very language-driven, that molds very complicated 3-D characters despite its poetic approach. As an actor, it’s an honor to live in something as complicated and range-y as this role. It’s a multilayered part, and you don’t get much of that with most of the women’s roles out there.
But was the range here – with a character swinging between such high highs and low lows – ever intimidating?
Obviously playing a manic-depressive is very difficult – to portray someone both when they’re on their meds and later when the lows get really low. I’ve certainly been doing research and feel a responsibility for my portrayal. And I actually think all artists show some of the patterns of a manic-depressive – the high highs of throwing yourself into a project and then the low lows as it all comes to an end and you find yourself walking around in circles for a week. So I can identify with some of this. But as I read more about the way people experience this disease, I realize I can’t fully relate. It’s totally intense. I’ve been reading Andrew Solomon
’s book, and it’s just devastating, what he puts forth. Being so wrapped up in this story, and focused on this disease, is a little hard – I’ve had some sleepless nights as I’ve focused on this play and the tortured stories that are out there.
How do you go about linking these two different issues – of manic-depressiveness and deceitful memoirs?
Well, in the case of my character, Emma seems more like a dreamer who wants to come to grips with the issues of her own personal history while also re-writing her life story – this is the dichotomy of her memoir. I did some research on Margaret Seltzer, reading all the detailed transcripts from interviews she did about her book, where she talked about growing up in a gang in South Central, and it’s unbelievable. But in all these interviews, she’s so convincing and specific about the memories of that life – I watched a YouTube clip
of her talking about growing up in a gang and she even puts on a bit of an accent – that it’s utterly fascinating. And then you read articles with her editor and you see how devastated she was, that she was totally fooled, but she claims that Margaret was able to keep up this level of specificity for three years. There was never a crack – never a different version that led people to ask more questions. And some have even researched about whether there might be issues with her mental health – that she must be dealing with some sort of chemical imbalance or mania or other forms of depression.
After movies and TV and theater, where are you thinking of putting your energy next?
My partner Jon [Hamm] and I formed a production company and we have three projects in development right now. One script’s a studio romantic comedy, and I’m also hoping to set up a film adaption of one of Cusi’s plays that we saw in February at the Denver Center: Dusty and the Big Bad World
. It was a wonderful production, and during my second viewing I also started thinking: This would make a great independent film, it has such a good story but also this visual potential. She’s always wanted to be a playwright, but I think she could also make a wonderful screenwriter.
Speaking of Jon Hamm, with Mad Men coming back, has it affected your relationship at all, as he’s become an instantly-recognizable icon as well. He even hosted Saturday Night Live.
Well Jon’s at a level of fame now where of course people want to talk about it. It’s a testament to us that we’ve been together this long, and it’s hilarious to me when people talk about his overnight success, because I know he’s been slogging away for 12 years in Los Angeles in fairly anonymous work. I thought he would be a star 12 years ago, so I’m mostly just wondering what took people so long. We’ve sort of seen it all – I know what it’s like to not get a job and not have any money. We’ve had all these wonderful ups and downs, just like every career out there. I remember being totally broke in L.A. You can’t work on an independent film for nine months and not be broke afterwards. And I came home afterwards and we had to move out of our house because we were going to have to sublet it out for six to nine months [to cover the mortgage]. But then I got the show Notes from the Underbelly
, and Jon got the Mad Men
pilot, and it’s funny how your life can turn on a dime from month to month in this business. Who knows what’s next around the corner.
(photo credit: James Leynse)