At the center of 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…
Jennifer Westfeldt: 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.