Wednesday, December 12, 2018

132 (2018-2019): Review: THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT (seen December 11, 2018)

“Truth or Consequences” 

When I was in junior high my friend Lester was so annoyed by my constant reference to trivial facts that he dubbed me “Sam Factual.” The nickname didn’t stick but my obsession with facts did, leading me to a career in academia, two appearances on Jeopardy, and the publication of a slew of books and the editing of a major academic journal. Some of what I published was actually examined, if only cursorily, by professional fact-checkers.
In this age of “fake news,” when a close advisor to the president can actually excuse his factual errors by calling them “alternative facts,” it’s only natural for there to be interest in a play about fact-checking. I'm referring, of course, to The Lifespan of a Fact, a sporadically interesting comedy being given a not altogether successful production at Studio 54, starring three of Broadway’s brightest lights: Daniel Radcliffe (the Harry Potter films, The Cripple of Inishman), Cherry Jones (The Glass Menagerie), and Bobby Cannavale (The Hairy Ape).
It’s by a trio of writers, credited in the program as “Jeremy Kareken & David Murrell and Gordon Farrell,” whose source is a 2012 nonfiction book of the same title by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, who happen to be two of the play’s characters. The play is based closely on the book’s many e-mails and comments surrounding D’Agata’s essay, “What Happens There,” written in 2003 but first published in 2010.

When we first meet Fingal (Radcliffe), he’s a speed-talking, nervously ambitious, young intern at a New York magazine whose classy-looking editor, Emily (Jones)—nicely garbed by costumer Linda Cho—gives him a midweek assignment requiring him to fact-check an essay by respected writer John D’Agata (Cannavale) by the following Monday morning.
The essay—D’Agata insists on that word, not “article”—is about suicide in Las Vegas, with particular reference to the death of a teen named Levi Presley who leaped from the roof of the Stratosphere Hotel. The Harvard-educated Fingal goes way beyond what Emily envisioned, taking his responsibilities to the extreme, compiling a stack of notes that is way longer than the essay itself, and even showing up at the writer’s Vegas home for clarification and correction.

D’Agata is initially arrogant and defensive, but Fingal keeps harping on the need for factual accuracy in even the most seemingly minor details: the number of Vegas strip clubs, the color of the bricks on the Strip, how many seconds it took for Presley to fall, etc.

D’Agata expostulates on his creative freedom as a writer to bend the facts on behalf of literary style and emotional accuracy, and the play becomes a debate over the principles of objective reportage versus artistic liberty in search of a higher truth. Things become troubled enough that the frustrated Emily flies out to Vegas to adjudicate the dispute, with all three working through the night to put the essay’s many worms back in their can. 
Serious as the subject is, and heated as it often gets, the play starts off as often being very funny, sometimes even verging on farce. The laughs gradually diminish, though, as it settles into more serious territory, creating an uneasy balance between comedy and drama. And much as it’s interesting to hear the arguments play out, there’s little one can approve in John’s colorful rhetoric defending his creative approach to the facts.

Fingal may be a poster boy for fact-checkers who border on OCD but, given the way the any reporter, celebrity, politician, or publication today must fear being outed for even innocent exaggerations or mistakes, nonfiction writers with literary aspirations must labor to combine those with information as honest and well-sourced as possible.

Leigh Silverman directs with brisk authority but, for all the play’s basis in real life, it often seems more fake than real, suggesting that its own authenticity needs fact-checking. Some of it is obviously fake, like the five-day deadline premise; various details about John’s life and career; or Emily’s unnamed magazine, which is said to have been around for over half a century, although the magazine that eventually published John’s story was The Believer, founded in San Francisco in 2003. In a sense, the play is a dramatized example of John D’Agata’s writing philosophy. 
Moreover, John’s story about a suicide never rises to the level of importance everyone in the play seems to bestow on it.  Nor do the writers solve the classic playwriting problem of how to get people offstage convincingly so others can have private conversations.

Visually, the play is an uncomfortable mashup. It begins in a sleekly modern world, given a high-tech gloss by Mimi Lien’s simplified setting, Jen Schriever’s lighting, and Lucy Mackinnon’s projections. When the bulk of the action moves to D’Agata’s surprisingly dumpy home, though, we’re suddenly faced with a typical sitcom environment, as if we’re in a Neil Simon comedy. Which, come to think of it, the play often suggests, as in a scene when Jim hides in what Emily thinks is the basement but is actually a closet. 
Jones and Cannavale, whose voice sounded rather hoarse the night I went, bring their expected charisma to Emily and John, she being appropriately desperate while always in control, he doing his gruff, machismo thing as the self-centered writer. Neither, however, offers anything we haven’t seen from them before, and both occasionally play more to the audience than to one another.

It’s Radcliffe—despite speaking so rapidly at times his words get muffled—who provides the most honest performance, with his nerdy, politely insistent demand for factual correctness. He’s also mastered a perfectly believable American accent.

This being a limited engagement, the lifespan of The Lifespan of a Fact will itself not be very long, with a scheduled closing on January 13, only weeks away. And that’s a fact.


Studio 54
254 W. 54th St., NYC
Through January 13