254 West 54th St.
Through January 13, $49-$179
In another part of my life, I have worked in book, newspaper, and magazine publishing, where I am regularly involved in fact checking, corresponding with freelancers, editors, and authors, trying to carefully balance artistic license and the absolute truth, if such a thing exists. So I have a particular interest in The Lifespan of a Fact, the new play by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell continuing at Studio 54 through January 13. Inspired by a true story, the eighty-five-minute show centers around an essay written by John D’Agata (Bobby Cannavale) for a magazine run by Emily Penrose (Cherry Jones), who has hired intern Jim Fingal (Daniel Radcliffe) to fact check the piece, which is about the suicide of sixteen-year-old Levi Presley in Las Vegas. A recent Harvard grad, Fingal is excited about showing Penrose what he can do, assuring her that he is the right person for the job, which is on a very tight deadline. “Check all the details, make sure they’re correct,” she tells him. “John’s been known to take his little liberties, so if there’s a place mentioned, make sure it’s spelled correctly. If there’s a person mentioned, confirm they exist. We need to make a good faith effort — confirm every detail.” She also tells him not to “be roughshod,” as D’Agata is a great writer and the piece is an extremely beautiful and important essay about humanity. But what begins as a small dispute between the nerdy Fingal and the tough D’Agata over how many strip clubs there are in Vegas turns into a major battle over language, journalism, and veracity.
Objecting to Fingal’s queries, D’Agata advises him, “I take liberties with things that deepen the central truth of the piece. Don’t get bogged down in the details, keep your eye on the big picture. Except don’t, because that’s my job.” But when Fingal does get bogged down on the details, questioning just about every single thing mentioned in the essay, he flies out to Vegas to perform what he believes to be due diligence. “If you say an event occurred, readers need to trust that it occurred,” Fingal insists to D’Agata. “This piece rests on the weight of a lot of details; it’s problematic for you to wash your hands of their accuracy.” D’Agata defends himself, explaining, “Things don’t rest on weights. Weights rest on things. I’m not washing my hands of anything. I’m saying there’s a world of facts to choose from. The wrong facts get in the way of the story.” To which Fingal snidely responds, “The ‘wrong’ facts?! And that means what exactly?” Soon Penrose becomes the referee in a furious fight between the two men, each of whom is making legitimate points as the deadline approaches.
Breezily directed by Tony nominee and Obie winner Leigh Silverman (Violet, Go Back to Where You Are), the play features dynamic performances by three-time Drama Desk nominee Radcliffe (Privacy, The Cripple of Inishmaan), two-time Tony winner Jones (The Glass Menagerie, Doubt), and two-time Tony nominee Cannavale (The Hairy Ape, The Motherf**ker with the Hat), an outstanding trio of actors who play off one another with endless charm even as the plot heats up and moves from Penrose’s office to D’Agata’s Vegas home. (The sets are by Tony winner Mimi Lien, with distracting projections by Lucy Mackinnon and original music by Palmer Hefferan.) Watching the annotation of the essay is fascinating; you can actually read the final, published article here, in the aptly titled Believer magazine.
Over the years, I have often found myself between a copy editor and a line editor, the former catching a factual error, the latter stetting it (letting it stand as is) for one reason or another. The Lifespan of a Fact gets right to the heart of the matter with intelligence and wit, although it takes it to an extreme, complete with some very funny slapstick comedy. The play itself has taken many liberties with the story; Fingal and D’Agata are real, while Penrose is not, and many of the situations and the timeline have been altered for dramatic impact, which is okay with Fingal and D’Agata, who wrote about their experience in their 2012 book, The Lifespan of a Fact. The show arrives on Broadway at an opportune moment in American history, when facts are challenged on social media and the president screams about fake news when he doesn’t like what is written about him in the press. But The Lifespan of a Fact wisely avoids getting political, instead concentrating on how three very different people with distinct objectives approach the truth, understanding that what’s most critical in this case is trying to find out why a teenager jumped from the top of a hotel in a place called Sin City. “Readers care how events play out on a deeper level. They care about the meaning behind the confluence of the events,” John says. “But events didn’t conflue the way you said,” Jim replies. “Conflue is not a word,” John responds. In today’s day and age, does it even matter who among the three characters might be the most right and what qualifies as a necessary fact?