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New York City Theater

"The Lifespan of a Fact"
Studio 54

Those idiotic oxymorons, “fake news” and “alternate facts,” do not appear in “The Lifespan of a Fact,” the adaptation of the true-life tell-all co-authored by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. But words like “truth,” “accuracy” and “credibility” do show up in this thoughtful, satiric dissection of the differences between fact and fiction.

Although events occurred years before the Trump era’s skewed realities, the play is a lodestar, its parallels obvious. It makes a literary battle over words into a war as brutal, yet somehow amusing, as any life-and-death conflict.

Jim Fingal is assigned by a magazine to fact-check “What Happens There,” an essay written by John D’Agata about the Las Vegas suicide of 16-year-old Levi Presley. Not merely reportage, the essay connects the suicide and other dire events that happened that day with the city’s gambling culture.

Jim’s assignment is straightforward. Working against a deadline, he has to determine: Are names correctly spelled? Did described events happen just as noted? Does accuracy count more than style, rhythm, mood and tone?

Taking his assignment literally, Jim chokes the life out of the essay. Did it take the suicidal Levi Presley eight or nine seconds to fall 1,149 feet from Las Vegas’ Stratosphere Tower? (It was eight but nine sounds better.) Are there 34 or 31 strip clubs in that Nevada gambling town? (There are 31, but John prefers the sound of 34.)

“I started with the facts; I really did,” says John. “I’m not interested in accuracy; I’m interested in truth.”

The play, written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell, adds a character, Emily Penrose, to the events. Refereeing the clash between author and fact-checker, with whom should she side? After all, although the essay bends the facts, it is brilliant as it stands and will surely boost the magazine’s circulation.

Jim argues academically, pointing out, with all the Harvard self-importance he can muster, that John’s liberties “violate about ten different rules of journalistic integrity. . . .By misrepresenting .  .  . you undermine society’s trust in itself. Which is why facts have to be the final measure of the truth.”

All this could emerge as so much prosaic, dry dialogue. But the characters are played with such conviction that they and the play are, at once, amusing and compelling. The starry cast is a pleasure to watch.

As Jim, the stunningly versatile Daniel Radcliffe is a self-serving slave to his character’s minutiae. Whether toting a load of notes thicker than the essay in question, or recoiling from physical attacks, Radcliffe is the prime nerd, energetic, getting in everyone’s way and oh so sure of himself.

As his antagonist, John, Bobby Cannavale switches from being a bully with height and weight on his side, to a sensitive writer who believes primarily in himself. For John, feelings are stranger and more essential to becoming human than bare facts and Cannavale is nothing if not passionate about being human.

Cherry Jones’s Emily seems to be all business but is a tangled web of desires. Jones anchors the character as someone who puts a “No Trespassing” barrier around herself. Playing a woman with secrets, Jones is pragmatic on the surface, enigmatic below.

Under Leigh Silverman’s snappy direction, “The Lifespan of a Fact” makes even the most arcane arguments into something that matters. The play itself is skimpy on emotional development, more a debate among unchangeable characters. Yet, in these dangerous times, ferreting out the differences between fact and fancy, truth and lies, may be the provocative conundrum of our times.

--David A. Rosenberg
Dec. 1, 2018

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