In a time of fake news, these timely and topical questions are raised in the delightful new Broadway play The Lifespan of a Fact, a dramatization by Jeremy Kareken & David Murrell and Gordon Farrell of the essay/book by writer John D’Agata and fact checker Jim Fingal, both who appear as two of the three characters in this play. Stars of stage and screen Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones and Bobby Cannavale are having a field day in this amusing and provocative romp in roles that they have played before and are not too taxing but are played by them to the hilt. The fact that this is based on a true story adds to the piquancy of the play – although to be absolutely truthful the original editing job took seven years while only five days go by in the play.
The facts of the case are that essayist D’Agata was commissioned by Harper’s Magazine in 2003 to write an article about the suicide of Levi Presley from the top of the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas as symptomatic of a bigger problem. Ultimately, the finished essay (which may or may not have been called “Life and Death in Las Vegas”) was rejected by the magazine for the non-journalistic way that D’Agata had gone about writing the story. The Believer magazine accepted it but assigned fact checker Jim Fingal to vet the information in the 15 page article. It was not published until seven years later under the title “What Happens There.” In 2012, D’Agata and Fingal published the original unedited essay along with Fingal’s emendations and D’Agata’s comments (emails or otherwise) which appear on the same page in an unusual publishing format. The book does not contain the finished edited magazine article which can be found online.
After hearing John reading the opening line of the unedited essay out loud, the play begins with high-powered editor Emily Penrose (Jones) at an unnamed magazine interviewing intern/proof-reader Jim Fingal (Radcliffe) who has been recommended for the quick turnaround job to edit the essay by John D’Agata (Cannavale) for the next issue. The time is tight – it is Wednesday and the finished work is needed by 5 AM Monday morning. However, Jim who has worked on Harvard’s Crimson when he was a student feels he is more than competent to do the job on time. Jim turns out to be a stickler for details and very little escapes him.
Emily warns Jim that John in the past has taken “the occasional liberty.” Titles show the passing of time. Very quickly Jim has questions about John’s accuracy and is given his email address in Las Vegas in order to get in touch with him, and we see and hear their email correspondence. John, who has very little evidence to back up his assertions as he did not take notes when interviewing people face to face, is very thorny about the challenges to his statements. He explains that he is not a journalist but an essayist and that allows him more leeway for creativity. He believes that the essay is “an irreducible literary art form, like fiction and poetry” but if you are passing off fiction as fact, can this lead to a libel suit? It transpires that John has changed numbers due to the rhythm, dates for a more symbolic effect, and events for a more dramatic story. He has also fudged details, invented things that he can’t know for certain, and has used non-credible sources. Emily warns Jim not to be overwhelmed by the forest for the trees, but on the other hand, to check every detail.
Ultimately, furious Emily gets a phone call from John in Las Vegas on Sunday morning that Jim is asleep on his couch. Worrying about her tight deadline, Emily flies out to Las Vegas to join them for a final showdown and finds that Jim has 130 pages of notes and countless files of research for the 15 page essay. John fights them every inch of the way, while Emily’s bottom line is the specter of a lawsuit. The minutes tick away as the 5 AM Monday deadline looms with Emily having a Plan B if the essay is not finished in time.
Under Leigh Silverman’s exciting and polished direction, the cast could not be better for this material, though they seem to have been cast to type. Radcliffe’s Jim is the nerdy, neurotic type who has checked every reference every way possible including interviews of his own, and feels that his work is a trial for promotion, not that different from a grown up Harry Potter. Jones’ Emily is the super-efficient, no-nonsense career woman who is an ace at what she does. In the guise that we have come to expect from Cannavale, he is arrogant, volatile, violent and assured that he is always right – even when there is evidence that he isn’t.
Lucy Mackinnon’s projection design which not only keeps us apprised of the passing days, but lets us in on the correspondence between Jim and John is an compelling element in the production. Mimi Lien’s attractive settings depict Emily’s office as well as John’s low-rent Las Vegas home. The costumes by Linda Cho are exactly what these people would wear while working. Jen Schriever’s astute lighting stays out of the way of the play and the performers and never draws attention to itself.
The Lifespan of a Fact is funny, fast-paced and provocative. In Donald Trump’s America what constitutes a fact has become of paramount importance. The play also has a good deal to tell us about journalistic ethics as opposed to the art of essay writing. Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones and Bobby Cannavale make this a delightful and thought-provoking evening in the theater, and seem to be enjoying themselves enormously. One fact not mentioned in the play, the real John D’Agata is now teaching creative writing, not journalism or non-fiction.
The Lifespan of a Fact (through January 13, 2019)
Studio 54, 254 W. 54th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.lifespanofafact.com
Running time: 85 minutes with no intermission