Actress Jennifer Westfeldt appears to possess an unfailingly sunny demeanor. Her speech is peppered with more exclamation points than periods. Her description of the set of “24” (on which she has a recurring role in the new season) makes it seem like a Norman Rockwell scene. And when she greets you with “Did you have a good day?” it sounds like she actually wants a truthful response. It’s not a stretch to see how Westfeldt has found success in vehicles like the quirky romantic comedy “Kissing Jessica Stein” (which she also wrote and produced) and a 2004 Broadway production of “Wonderful Town.”
Somewhat surprising, then, is her latest turn as a bipolar manic-depressive in Cusi Cram’s “A Lifetime Burning,” at Primary Stages’ 59E59 Theater starting Tuesday. Even her good friend Cram admits she wasn’t an obvious choice.
“It’s not the first place I would go — it’s out of the comfort range of how most people know her as an actress. It’s a very, very dark character,” says Cram, who first met Westfeldt in an acting class in 1994. “But at the same time, I know her very, very well as an actress and I knew she was capable of taking it on.”
In “A Lifetime Burning,” Westfeldt plays Emma, a trust fund baby who has recently penned a colorful, James Frey-esque memoir. When her imaginary account is outed, it threatens her tenuous relationship with her sister, Tess, and raises greater questions about the nature of storytelling.
“Is there an absolute truth? Do we even want the absolute truth? Or do we all want a better read that sort of takes us somewhere?” Westfeldt muses, leaning forward in her chair.
The actress has taken to what is not the lightest of dramatic fare. Her bag is crammed with a highlighted copy of “An Unquiet Mind” and Andrew Solomon’s “The Noonday Demon” (“unbelievably dense and pretty definitive: He does an atlas of depression”). And though clearly of sound mind, she has found a certain commonality with Emma.
“Wildly creative high highs and low lows….Certainly I think an artist’s temperament has a little piece of that,” she says.
It is all part of what director Pam MacKinnon characterizes as Westfeldt’s highly detail-oriented process.
“In this play, you have to be really consistent physically. Jennifer is very meticulous when it comes to that and really throws her energy into it,” she says, recalling how, early on in rehearsals, Westfeldt brought in six of her own dresses for a specific scene. “She’s someone who’s like, ‘I’m not going to demand that the costume department do this so early; I’ll bring a suitcase in from home.’”
Westfeldt, 39, has immersed herself in drama since her formative years in Guilford, Conn. She spent high school summers in acting classes and became a company member of Summer Stock at 15. After majoring in theater studies at Yale, she moved to New York to pursue stage work.
“My dream was never TV and movies. That just came by the way,” she says. “I always wanted to just be on Broadway.”
While visiting a friend in Los Angeles in the late Nineties, she landed a role in the ABC series “Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place” and has remained bicoastal since. Westfeldt has been with “Mad Men” actor Jon Hamm for more than a decade, and the duo recently formed the production company Points West Pictures. Their current projects include a studio romantic comedy, “Life of Riley,” and an adaptation of one of Cram’s works, “Dusty and the Big Bad World,” whose screenplays Westfeldt is writing.
Despite her film-heavy load (and Los Angeles home base), she hopes to dip her pen into the theater well with more frequency.
“It’s always been part of my life. I’d like to do a play every year and make sure it stays in my repertoire,” she says, adding ruefully: “In Los Angeles, mostly people only go to see plays if they think they could adapt it to film.”