REVIEW: Exploring Truthiness in “The Lifespan of a Fact”
Writer John D’Agata was on to something when he and factchecker, Jim Fingal, decided to publish a book annotating Mr. D’Agata’s 2003 essay “What Happens There” with Mr. Fingal’s fastidious factchecking and their collective, years-long correspondence about facts, falsehoods, the nature of non-fiction, the boundaries of creative license, and the ethics of journalism.
That was in 2012. The book? “The Lifespan of a Fact”.
The authors could not have imagined the rise of “alternative facts” and renewed popular understanding of “gaslighting” that would occur just a few years later. As we slip further into a “post-truth” world, though, it makes sense that Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell would adapt Mr. D’Agata and Mr. Fingal’s book into a stage play. And it’s a no brainer that producers would jump at the opportunity to capitalize on this moment to present a smart and funny new play with a serious message about the importance of facts and fact-checking to the trust and integrity of institutions.
And so—save for film or television adaptation—“The Lifespan of a Fact” has completed its lifespan by opening at Studio 54 on Broadway this evening as a poppy procedural and socially conscious comedy starring Bobby Canavale as John D’Agata, Daniel Radcliffe as Jim Fingal, and Cherry Jones as a fictional magazine editor named Emily Penrose.
This trio is simply radiant in director Leigh Silverman’s swift and thrilling production, which, thankfully, allows for the unremarkable script and occasional self-indulgence of the overarching enterprise to go unnoticed. What does go noticed is the fact that Ms. Silverman has assembled the first ever all female design team for a Broadway show with sets by Mimi Lien, costumes by Linda Cho, lighting by Jen Scrivener, music and sound by Palmer Hefferan, and projections by Lucy Mackinnon.
Adapted from the book, itself based on real events, the play opens as Emily assigns D’Agata’s essay to Fingal, a lowly intern, for fact-checking mere days before a printing deadline. Budget cuts have eliminated the factchecking department of this magazine, and time considerations have compressed this “true-ish” story into five days, instead of the seven years between D’Agata’s writing and publishing.
The essay, about suicide in Las Vegas, is a big one for the magazine, and Emily knows she’s sitting on gold. What she doesn’t count on, however, is Fingal’s precision, research skills, and literal-mindedness. In the end, he produces 130 pages of fact-checking flags for a 15 page essay, pricking holes in what comes to feel like nearly every factual assertion in the piece.
The prickly and arrogant D’Agata resents the process, evading Fingal’s questions or else playing games. Their discourse, first over email, then in person after Fingal flies to Las Vegas to scope out the scene of the essay, forms the crux of the play, smoothly exploring the line between creative writing and journalism and the conflicts between style and truth, error and intention, and art and commerce.
Emily joins the guys for a final, all-night bout of argument in D’Agata’s living room over what to keep, what to cut, and what to change—a negotiation over the truth and its perversion for the sake of rhythm, tone, and mood, not to mention sales and clicks—as the clock ticks toward the final deadline.
The play ends with the ultimate decision of whether or not to publish unresolved, no doubt hoping to engender debate among the audience. That’s laudable, but this “true-ish” story also has a knowable ending. A quick Google, or, um, fact check, will reveal that Harper’s declined to published D’Agata’s essay in 2003, which was then printed, instead, by The Believer, another, albeit less illustrious, literature magazine, in 2010.
I suspect few audience members are likely to know that history, though. I didn’t realize the story was a true one until after I saw the play (sometimes my desire not to have the experience of seeing a new show tainted by preconception can go too far!), but that’s not fatal at all. Without getting too bogged down in any one point or argument, the play is able to investigate important, relevant questions about journalistic standards and ethics in an accessible and entertaining way.
The necessity of engaging the audience with the substance of D’Agata’s essay means that only the opening paragraph of the piece—read at the top of the play and repeated many times throughout—is put up for debate, along with a few other key points. Again, that’s fine, but it can make the debate among the characters seem small, and obvious—a dance around what might be more engaging: reading the book.
Michael Moore’s one man show and Beau Willimon’s painful “The Parisian Woman” notwithstanding, “The Lifespan of a Fact” is the first Broadway play specifically targeted for the Trump era that makes a successful impact. That’s because it operates as a small-scale allegory from a simpler time, cloaked in comedy, but deadly serious in delivering its central truth that facts matter. And there’s never been a better time for that message. I wonder if the producers can organize a field trip for West Wing staff?
Bottom Line: “The Lifespan of a Fact” is a poppy procedural and socially conscious comedy about facts, falsehoods, the nature of non-fiction, the boundaries of creative license, and the ethics of journalism. Bobby Canavale, Cherry Jones, and Daniel Radcliffe are a radiant trio in Leigh Silverman’s swift and entertaining production. This is the Trump-era play we’ve been waiting for: smart and funny, with a serious message about the importance of facts and fact-checking to the trust and integrity of institutions.
“The Lifespan of a Fact”
254 West 54th Street
New York, NY 10019
Running Time: 85 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: October 18, 2018
Final Performance: January 13, 2019