The temptation upon seeing the title of the zinging, excellent journalism-based play, The Lifespan of a Fact, is to imagine that this will be a dramatic meditation upon our age of news-gathering, a deconstruction of the “fake news” attacks conducted by those who attempt to gaslight the nation about their own misdeeds.
A play advertising in its title “the lifespan” of a fact will surely be about the mutability of facts in the fast, furious and fallible internet age, an interrogation on journalism in the era of Trump.
Thankfully this play, opening at Studio 54 (itself once a place of much newsmaking incident and myth-making,) is about much more than the above.
It is intelligent, thought-provoking, and challenging to the audience: the theatrical equivalent of the best kind of fiendish board puzzle or chewy dinner-party topic. And yes, the ghost of Trump and his acolytes’ words hang in the air, but more pronounced is the focus on what counts as fact and the perception of fact in what we read and visually and aurally consume every day.
It is about journalism and the practice of it, and it is also about the writerly imagination and what we don’t see even as we read what is right in front of us. Every contradiction cloaked in the term “literary non-fiction” is thoroughly, beautifully deconstructed here by the all-excellent Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones, and Bobby Cannavale.
Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell’s sparkling play is based on a true story; in 2010, the author John D’Agata published a piece about the suicide of Levi Presley, a Las Vegas teenager, for Believer magazine. You can read it in its final form here. But the epic story of his fights with fact-checker Jim Fingal around that piece began in 2002, and finally became a co-authored book on which this play is based.
Radcliffe recently conducted a day-long stint as a New Yorker fact-checker, prompting a charming piece to promote the play.
If all that sounds like rabbit warrens upon rabbit warrens (and do read the New York Times article in which Radcliffe, Cannavale, and Jones came face to face with the real Fingal and D’Agata), then that is exactly what the play delights in.
Jones as the made-up character of Emily Penrose is wonderful as the editor you most fear and most want on your side: fearless, a passionate advocate for good writing, and devastating when circumstance demands or when feeling cornered. Radcliffe as Jim is just as rigorous a fact-checker a writer should want but most dread and cannot bear: he is so good at his job that his corrections run to a small novella themselves.
Cannavale as D’Agata is the writer editors most prize (he writes like a dream), and yet is an impossible diva who believes any incursion—fact-check or otherwise—on his copy is an act of unacceptable, philistinish vandalism.
In the play, D’Agata recoils when he sees the folder of notes that is the physical manifestation of his journalistic shortcomings. Its thickness is damning and insulting before any word of criticism or slash of a red pen.
Leigh Silverman directs this 95-minute production at a brisk though not breakneck pace, with, in a Broadway first, all its design elements—scenic (Mimi Lien), costume (Linda Cho), lighting (Jen Scrivener), music and sound (Palmer Hefferan) and projections (Lucy Mackinnon)—overseen by women.
We move from Emily’s office, symbolized by a lightly colored opaque backdrop to John’s not-scuzzy, not lovely bachelor pad in Vegas. The sides of the stage occasionally flow with the initially cheery-turning-to-tetchy email exchanges between Jim and John. Jim’s first mistake: to describe the piece as an article. D’Agata sees his pieces as “essays,” if you please.
For much of the play, we barely progress beyond the first two sentences of the piece, studded as they are with questions over possible inaccuracies.
Emily initially presents the essay to Jim as “sense from immeasurable tragedy. The history and meaning of Vegas. Despair. Yearning. What it is to be human in a city.”
Which all sounds great, but as soon as Jim starts digging into John’s research on a lap dancing ban, the number of strip clubs (31 or 34), he gets insulting pushback. D’Agata tells him to check a few dates and not over-estimate his importance. And Jim is part of an endangered species; Emily makes clear job cuts have already scythed into the magazine’s fact-checking department.
“I take liberties with things that deepen the central truth of the piece,” says D’Agata. “Don’t get bogged down in the details, keep your eye on the big picture. Except don’t, because that’s my job.”
The facts that D’Agata was born to, he says, “put a bad taste in my mouth about your easy certainty that facts are some herd of purebred white horses galloping majestically, looking down their noses at ambiguity or suspicion or nuance.”
Jim is not so easily put off by these fine words and highfalutin’ defenses of authorial liberty. Where was the world’s oldest bottle of Tabasco sauce really found? Who was the woman who won a certain tic-tac-toe game? How many heart attacks were there in Las Vegas that day: 4 or 8? How many seconds did Levi’s fatal fall last, 8 or 9? What about a traffic jam that likely never happened? Were a building’s bricks brown or red?
“Don't try to stare me down,” Jim tells a menacing D’Agata. “I had older brothers. I will fuck your shit up.”
Where Radcliffe hilariously embodies Jim as a squirrelly agitator, determined to do a good job, Cannavale’s D’Agata is a frustrated, sneering heel, a swaggering, muscular, scowling egotist out to squash dorky Jim on his determined mission of total truth. The two actors subtly mine the little-and-large humor out of their physical presences.
This eventually culminates in a three-way face-off at D’Agata’s Vegas apartment, with a Monday press deadline looming. (This did not happen in real life, by the way.) When Emily announces she’s flying in from New York, Jim looks panicked to D’Agata: “Mom’s pissed.”
D’Agata pleads that he is an essayist, not a journalist, in the tradition of Herodotus, Cicero, Seneca, and Plutarch. Emily tries to keep the peace, knowing her readers trust the magazine she edits, but that she cannot fund the absolute fact-checking faith that such devotion assumes and the magazine is proud to publicly uphold.
It is insoluble, of course, and the positions of Jim, John, and Emily are played out, negotiated and agonized over in newsrooms big and small.
The audience’s biggest cheer in this thrilling comic joust comes when Jim says to John: “By changing paint colors and statistics... by misrepresenting official and searchable documents, you undermine your argument, you undermine society’s trust in itself. Which is why facts have to be the final measure of the truth.”
D’Agata responds with a moving story about his mother’s death, but Jim’s rejoinder, gentle as it is, makes clear again that the fact-checker is not interested in impression and subjective thought.
The truth-stretching luxuries of literary non-fiction are still prized but also questioned, just as the world of basic news delivery feels more fragile and fraught than ever before. Certainties are what are desired, even if the internet and our leaders promulgate lies ever more shamelessly.
The fact-checking of Trump and his ilk is a valuable, valiant enterprise, even as it seems the world, so used to the debasement of truth, becomes more resigned to holding our leaders to lower standards.
Jim Fingal is a hero. He is right. But the murky tide of exaggeration, dissemblance and outright lies is enveloping him, and us. D’Agata isn’t Trump, and he isn’t a malicious liar, and he isn't a villain. But his industry cannot now allow him the narrative latitude to write as freely as he would wish.
This clever and nuanced play is less in thrall to the romance of longform narrative as it is in the grinding business of getting things right, in telling as close to the truth as one can. Or at least as close to it that no-one will complain and the media brand stays clean.
For all its laughs and satire, The Lifespan of a Fact is a desperate and heartfelt final stroke of the fact-checker's pen, just as the world—while claiming to treasure them—appears ambivalent about how important facts really are.
The Lifespan of a Fact is at Studio 54, NYC, through January 13.