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Lifespan of a Fact

Posted 12/8/18

Lifespan of a Fact, reviewed  by Fern Siegel for

In an era of “fake news” and real state TV (Fox), facts matter. Mark Twain wrote: “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please,” a sentiment Lifespan of a Fact, now on Broadway at Studio 54, takes to heart.

The play is based on a true story. In 2005, Jim Fingal, an intern at The Believer magazine, was given an essay to fact check. The piece, which highlighted a teen suicide in Las Vegas, explored the wider culture of suicide in the Nevada gambling capital. The writer, John D’Agata, is a noted creative nonfiction writer.

Emphasis on “creative.”

The three principals, seasoned editor Emily (Cherry Jones), relentless fact-checker Jim (Daniel Radcliffe) and affronted writer John (Bobby Cannavale) spend 85 uninterrupted minutes debating the importance of facts — literal and figurative — and truth, capital and small t.

And it’s a compelling exchange.

Crackling with intensity at times, Lifespan posits two opposing sides: Jim is obsessed with literal truth; Cannavale’s John is arrogant and defensive, championing the spirit of literary prose over exactitude. To him, facts are buzz-kills. (The two men’s editorial volley went back and forth for years. Their correspondence resulted in a 2012 book, on which the play is based.)

Occasional diatribe aside, Lifespan of a Fact debates the merits of fact vs. fiction in the service of a “higher truth.” “Right story, right times, it changes how people see events in their own lives,” Emily notes. She sees a prestige piece that will buttress the magazine in perilous financial times. But she also adheres to journalistic principles, knowing the magazine will be judged — and possibly liable — for serious errors.

So where does an editor draw the line? Which facts matter? If Jim finds discrepancies in the number of strip clubs, color of the brick or how someone dies, what should be changed? If a writer bends truth for little things, can we trust him on the big ones? Or does poetic license trump all?

These are meaty and provocative issues. But as Jim notes, in an age of social media and Google, everything is checkable. Credibility is on the line. And while voice, rhythm and lyricism enhance creative work, how many liberties can an essayist take?

Emily is left to referee between the warring sides, but one fact remains: Despite a strong cast, there is little dramatic tension and a dubious story arc here. The deadline is arbitrary; delay won’t diminish the essay’s potency. Audiences sit through a lively editorial debate, a reality dedicated journalists grapple with daily.

Lifespan of a Fact offers strong performances — Radcliffe has real acting chops, as he proved in Cripple of Inishmaan — and raises key questions. But the truth: The discussion isn’t theatrical. At heart, Lifespan is an intellectual treat rather than hard-hitting drama. — Fern Siegel