What are facts? What is truth? Can you state truth without a factual basis? These questions, debated for centuries, have been redefined in every age. Playwrights Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell refine the debate in an intriguing and humorous go-around between a fact-checker and his essayist in The Lifespan of a Fact. Incisively directed by Leigh Silverman, the comically paced play has a light side. Its darker side leads to questions about how information, “facts,” may be misused in the wrong hands. The production suits our time of “alternative facts” and truths skewed, making a larger point about the human condition.
Based on the book/essay of the same name written by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, the “true” story tells what happened when Fingal fact-checked D’Agata’s poignant essay about a teen’s suicide at a Las Vegas resort. The play explores their individual perspectives about the importance of writing for impact at the expense of the accuracy of ancillary background details. More importantly, it explores personality types and the very funny, heightened alerts that sound when an obsessive-compulsive, detail-driven nerdy researcher clashes with a loosey-goosey, poetic, symbolic, “going meta” writer with panache.
The conflict emerges when Emily Penrose, an accomplished and savvy magazine editor, chooses John D’Agata’s piece because of its social import. In hoping to get the article turned around for publication in less than five days, Emily appoints fact-checker Jim Fingal to ground the details of D’Agata’s piece for consonance and coherence with reality.
Cherry Jones portrays Penrose as a woman with humor, good will, and stern determination. Strong-willed and no-nonsense, yet measured, she asks all the right questions to quickly assess her new hire. Happy with Jim’s reasonable answers, she sends him spinning off on his journey. Her expectations ride on Jim’s assurances that he will make the deadline. Ironically, the opposite occurs. Not because the fact-checker is incompetent. But because his magnificent competence strains the credulity of time and patience.
As Jim, Daniel Radcliffe reveals his gifts for timing. He employs the right amount of deadpan edginess. His ironic delivery isn’t quite over the top, but appears organic with his researcher ethos. Though he exasperates Emily, he does so out of pride in his meticulousness. She does not fault him for doing a fine job. And despite Radcliffe’s history with owls and wands, we appreciate his portrayal of Jim’s excellence, however slightly outrageous it may be. When you see this too-good-to-miss production, consider the traffic map Jim uses to prove John’s inaccuracy on the day of the teen’s suicide.
Bobby Cannavale as D’Agata stands on the opposite end of the continuum, parrying Jim with wordy counterpunches. His portrayal has D’Agata’s indignation finely tuned, and we respond with riotous laughter. His initial attitude toward the fact-checking assaulter of his exquisite prose reveals a huge ego. Despite all the wordy talk, these male egos can barely be in the room together. What a pleasure to watch Radcliffe and Cannavale go head to head.
Indeed, after the two meet, we note their reactions pair beautifully with their physical types. Jim fits the researcher-twerp type, diminutive in stature and voice but a giant in intellect and research skills. By comparison John D’Agata’s muscular presence and bruising confident carriage signal machismo. The irony that he is a romantic and goes for the “meta” creates the humor in their interactions.
However, the fact-checker holds sway. And D’Agata becomes affronted by the miscalculations Jim tells Emily that John has made. How dare this guy attempt to restrain and retrain his ineffable, high-minded prose?
The humor explodes every time Jim attempts to toggle John. The exceptional Cannavale’s bite is worse than his roar. Only Emily can straighten out the warfare between the two. How this evolves and resolves becomes the meat of the play, as she exquisitely maneuvers the two male egos, forces them to recede, and calls upon their “better angels” to emerge.
This ensemble piece moves quickly. It arrives at its non-resolution resolution with delectable, sometimes rolling-in-the-aisles comedy. The philosophical arguments hold worthwhile import. Emily as the arbiter explains why responsibility for accuracy must be taken with extreme seriousness by publications. Yet the vitality of striking the readers’ emotions with well-written, singing prose must also be taken seriously. The two perspectives must combine with equanimity. One must not dominate the other. John’s intimation of truth is not enough. Facts secure it and make our feelings about an essay indelible and irrevocable.
Silverman’s staging works well. Emails written among Emily, John, and Jim provide the opening salvos of humor. Through screen projections we get to read and appreciate the writing styles of both the researcher and the essayist. Of course, the humor and explosions escalate during their live interactions as the notorious Jim investigates the scene of the suicide and visits the uber-frustrated John. Emily’s arrives to stem their conflict rings with LMAO humor.
You will enjoy the superb cast, whom Silverman has brimming with fast-paced quips that slide down easily. Their finest scenes take place in John’s Las Vegas home where the faceoffs occur. As they negotiate their own ire, frustration, and need to harangue, we understand both the silence of their inner thoughts and the power of their words. With intellect, logic, and rationality, they persuade. How refreshing!
Kudos go to Mimi Lien for Scenic Design, Linda Cho for Costume Design, and Jen Schriever for Lighting Design. For Original Music and Sound Design we have Palmer Hefferan and for Projection Design, Lucy MacKinnon. For Hair and Wig Design, kudos go to Charles G. Lapointe.
The Lifespan of a Fact runs at Studio 54 until 13 January. You can purchase tickets at their website.