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The Lifespan of a Fact

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 18, 2018

The Lifespan of a Fact by Jeremy Kareken & David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell. Based on the Essay/Book by John DÂ’Agata and Jim Fingal. Directed by Leigh Silverman. Scenic design by Mimi Lien. Costume design by Linda Cho. Lighting design by Jen Schriever. Original music and sound design by Palmer Hefferan. Projection design by Lucy Mackinnon. Hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones, and Bobby Cannavale.
Theatre: Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge


Daniel Radcliffe
Photo by Peter Cunningham

The Lifespan of a Fact, a funny, thought-provoking, and exceedingly well performed "comedy of conflict" opening tonight at Studio 54, begins with a voiceover reciting these words: "On the same day in Las Vegas when sixteen-year-old Levi Presley jumped from the observation deck of the 1,149-foot tower of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino, lap dancing was temporarily banned in the city's 34 licensed strip clubs, archaeologists unearthed parts of the world's oldest bottle of Tabasco-brand sauce from beneath a bar called Buckets of Blood, and a woman from Mississippi beat a chicken named Ginger in a 35-minute long game of tic-tac-toe."

If you have read through the sentence, you will have noticed it is full of specific details and that it also carefully establishes an audience-grabbing tone, rather like the start of a short story or a novel. The problem is, it is supposed to be a piece of non-fiction. Yet every fact it incorporates is suspect, at least in the eyes of a hot-to-trot young intern named Jim Fingal (a magnificently nerdy and single-minded portrayal by Daniel Radcliffe), eager to make a name for himself at the upscale Manhattan-based magazine where the article in question is about to be published.

Or, rather, make that the "essay," as its self-important author, John D'Agata (Bobby Cannavale), insists it be called. Doing so, he argues, gives him license to embellish; deference to TRUTH is far more important than such mundane things as the literal truth.

That is John's reputation, and that is why the magazine's editor-in-chief, Emily Penrose (Cherry Jones), has asked Jim to fact-check the piece before she releases it for publication. As an aside, Emily mentions the magazine has done away with its fact-checking department, which also explains why the tedious task is being handed down to the new kid on the block. Besides, the eager beaver young man comes to the job with a dual degree in computer science and journalism from Harvard. He even wrote a few stories and editorials for The Crimson. Solid enough credentials. What possibly could go wrong during the four days he has been given to review the 15-page essay?


Bobby Cannavale and Cherry Jones
Photo by Peter Cunningham

Well, three days later, when he appears on the doorstep of the writer's home carrying several notebooks filled with unanswered questions, we find out what could go wrong. Jim and John lock horns while the clock ticks away against Emily's absolute deadline (the magazine's printing presses, located in Kankakee, Illinois, are prepped to start running at 8 a.m. the next day). Exactly how tall was that tower? Was the teenager who is identified in the beginning actually 16 years old? And was his name really an anagram of "Elvis Presley," without the "S." Was lap dancing actually banned, and, if so, was the implied connection real, or was it a totally separate issue? And exactly how many strip clubs are there in Las Vegas? Jim has a great deal more to say as John defends and deflects, and there is little progress until Emily shows up, walking in on the pair just as John has his hands around Jim's throat.

The overall premise may sound flimsy and exaggerated beyond the plausible, yet, surprisingly, (a) it is drawn from an actual experience involving the real John D'Agata and the real Jim Fingal (writers Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell have shaped it into the play we see), and (b) it is so splendidly performed by three outstanding actors that you can accept the quasi-logical explanations for such things as to why Emily doesn't just fire Jim when things get out of hand, or why she prizes the article/essay so highly that she is willing to put up with the two out-of-control men and serve as the referee and arbitrator between them. Regardless, the interplay among Radcliffe, Jones, and Cannavale is simply a joy to watch.

The 90-minute production whizzes by under Leigh Silverman's direction, and the soft-sell but effective set design by Mimi Lien and the witty projections by Lucy Mackinnon help to keep the plates smoothly spinning. Between the performances and the production elements, you get a sense of egoless collaboration throughout. It's funny, clever, and thought-provoking all at once, a lovely blend of sitcom (the spritely, smart kind), farce, and a serious consideration of journalistic integrity that sometimes borders on an epistemological debate over the nature and purpose of storytelling. What's the last play you saw that could manage all of that?









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