Cusi Cram on A Lifetime Burning

The playwright calls B.S. on fake memoirs.

TOTAL RECALL Cram gathers memories in the rehearsal room.

TOTAL RECALL Cram gathers memories in the rehearsal room. Photograph: Courtesy of Cusi Cram

If playwright Cusi Cram wants to mine her life for drama, she’s got a fair amount to work with. Her British-royal mother was briefly married to literary lion Norman Mailer and—while he’s not Cram’s father—she grew up in his looming shadow. The writer spent her teenage years acting on the soap opera One Life to Live; then there was modeling and school; and a few years back she was involved in a PBS scandal over a censored children’s program about a kid with lesbian moms. “Yeah, not so much has to happen in my life now,” Cram, 41, says with a laugh. “I’m okay to have a boring life. I have a lot to write about: my dad’s family, my mom’s family. I’m good.”

The main character of her latest work, A Lifetime Burning, has the opposite situation. Emma (played by Jennifer Westfeldt in the Primary Stages world premiere) comes from famous, artsy WASP parents, but virtually disowns them in her first book, a memoir in which she claims to be part Inca and survivor of an inner-city crackhead family. When Emma’s high-strung journalist sister, Tess (Christina Kirk) angrily confronts her fibbing sibling, insults fly and much vodka is chugged. The play is rounded out by a sharkish literary agent (Isabel Keating) and Emma’s Latino love interest (Raul Castillo). Throughout the sparklingly witty script, Cram punctures both our obsession with true tales of suffering and the publishing industry’s insatiable appetite for sensational memoirs, regardless of their veracity.

“I think it’s really hard to make stuff up,” says Cram in regard to the fiction/nonfiction divide. “Unless you’re crazy—then it’s really easy. Maybe it will end, but we’ve been in this reality cycle, where the true story is so much more interesting. To me, it bespeaks a lack of imagination on our parts.”

At the same time, Cram is not trying to demonize Emma, or by extension those writers who have made news with fake memoirs. A Lifetime Burning was directly inspired by last year’s strange case of Margaret Seltzer, a white, upper-middle-class native of the San Fernando Valley who recast herself as a half-Cherokee, drug-dealing member of a South Central Los Angeles girl gang. Seltzer’s fictitious account, Love and Consequences, earned rave reviews and media attention—with the author herself adopting a homegirl accent—until the truth came out. It turns out that Seltzer’s own sister blew the whistle on the hoax. “I’ve always felt slightly sympathetic to these people who write fake stories,” Cram says, almost guiltily. “Not that you should go around pretending you’re Cherokee. But sometimes the story is larger than the truth. Maybe we’re all just too obsessed with truth and should be writing novels and make-believe.”

Underneath the satire and farcical aspects of Lifetime, there is a sympathetic, anguished portrait of Emma as a person who feels unrooted in her life, forced to invent a new past. Cram can almost relate, partly orphaned from her own very colorful, larger-than-life family. In 2007, the author’s mother and Mailer both died, so she, like the sisters in her play, has dealt with loss. There is an upside, she notes. “You think, okay, this is my story now,” Cram says. “There’s something liberating about it. Anything goes. That’s something I’ve felt in the last couple of years, going through a lot of loss. Writing is a way of figuring who I am and where I’m at.”

Where she’s at, professionally, is her Off Broadway debut, after years working Off-Off and at regional theaters in California, Colorado and Massachusetts. Why the long wait? Cram doesn’t know whether to ascribe it to an artistic gap between her style and New York producers’ or gender bias. (Inevitably, the recent discrimination-in-theater study by Emily Glassberg Sands comes up. Cram found it shocking, but concedes that some of its findings are up for interpretation.)

At any rate, here she is, kicking off a season that includes several female writers. Primary Stages leads the pack with an all-distaff lineup: Cram, Charlayne Woodard and Lucinda Coxon. At Playwrights Horizons, Kia Corthron, Annie Baker and Melissa James Gibson balance out the male dramatists. Anna Deavere Smith and Suzan-Lori Parks have new plays at Second Stage and the Public, respectively. And Lincoln Center Theater will give Sarah Ruhl her Broadway debut. “You’re perennially emerging,” Cram says with rueful humor about her long-delayed premiere. “And then when they call you a midcareer playwright, it just sounds middle-aged.” Painful, but true.

A Lifetime Burning is at Primary Stages.

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