The first fact that fact-checker Jim (Daniel Radcliffe) argues about in the essay by magazine writer John (Bobby Cannavale) is how many strip clubs there are in Las Vegas. Adult Industry News said there were 31. But John wrote there were 34. “I picked 34 because I liked the rhythm,” John says. The editor (Cherry Jones) agrees that 34 has a better rhythm than 31.
But, then, Jim admits that 31 might not be accurate either. Adult Industry News isn’t reliable, and, besides, what constitutes a strip club? “Is he talking about topless bars or fully nude bars?” Jim asks. “Is he including male establishments?”
The argument is typical of the humor in The Lifespan of a Fact, which depicts the editorial adversaries as an Odd Couple of clashing obsessions and peccadilloes. But I couldn’t help asking myself: Wouldn’t a copy editor simply have suggested removing the number entirely, and just saying “Las Vegas’ strip clubs”?
More production photos at NewYorkTheater.me
In a couple of different ways, I take The Lifespan of a Fact personally. On the one hand, Cherry Jones, Bobby Cannavale and Daniel Radcliffe are three of my favorite actors in the universe, performing in a comedy directed with a light, fast touch by Leigh Silverman, who’s helmed much theater I’ve enjoyed (Harry Clarke, Sweet Charity, Chinglish.) I’m even partial to the set designer, Mimi Lien, Tony Award winner for Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, who here creates (with the aid of projection designer Lucy Mackinnon) the slick offices of a New York magazine, and the solid, old-fashioned living room of John’s Las Vegas home, which he inherited from his mother.
On the other hand, the play purports to examine several serious and timely issues. John’s article is about a teen suicide. The debate between John and Jim is about the nature of truth, and what obligations literary nonfiction has towards factual accuracy. A cynic might say that journalists know everything about everything except anything you know something about. I know something about journalism. I’ve worked at newspapers and magazines as both a feature writer exasperated by the too-literal nitpicking of the copy editor or fact checker, and as a copy editor frustrated by the casual/careless attitude towards accuracy of the writer. I find The Lifespan of a Fact a slight play that simply doesn’t do full justice to the issues underneath the comedy.
This is so even though the play has its origins in a true story. In 2005, an intern at The Believer magazine named Jim Fingal was in fact assigned to fact-check an essay by John D’Agata about a teenager who had committed suicide in 2002 by jumping off the roof of a Las Vegas hotel. (The essay was eventually published under the title What Happens There.) Their testy exchange about the piece soon broadened into a philosophical discussion, which lasted some seven years, and was turned into a non-fiction book, The Lifespan of a Fact, published in 2012 to critical acclaim.
The dramatization of that book, credited to three playwrights, condenses those years into five days, and never mentions the name of the magazine. Emily (Jones) has decided at the last minute to publish John’s article in the very next issue, and so enlists Jim to fact-check it by Monday. As in the book, John initially resists any fact-checking. Rather incredibly, the argument over 31 versus 34 actually happened. (The published article did take out any number, and just said “the city’s strip clubs.”) But the play turns Jim into a bit of a nutcase. He puts together 130 pages of notes on a 15-page essay; he flies from the magazine’s offices in New York to Las Vegas to check out whether the hotel tower was made out of red brick (he discovers it’s really brown!), and winds up sleeping on John’s couch. Fact-checking a traffic jam mentioned in John’s piece, Jim offers a mathematical analysis that is hysterical (in both senses), complete with a diligently prepared chart, to demonstrate why there could not have been a jam.
Radcliffe demonstrates a fine comic touch in such scenes. Cannavale counters with skewering one-liners, though his John is also pompously self-regarding.
Near the end of this 90-minute play, John and Jim stake out their positions more seriously, with Emily also flying out to Las Vegas, to serve as referee and adjudicator.
The friend with whom I attended the play, a long-time journalist, kept on switching allegiances between Jim and John, momentarily convinced by each of their arguments, and thus finding the play both balanced and intriguing. But, for all Jim’s eccentricities and comic exaggeration, I never sided with John. John basically argues that facts alone can’t tell the whole story. “I’m not interested in accuracy; I’m interested in truth,” he says at one point. But how is this an argument for distorting or fabricating what facts you actually use?
John in effect maintains that a good story sometimes demands selective alteration. I agree, when the story is fiction. The literary landscape is littered with self-regarding non-fiction stylists who were exposed and brought down for their fudging or outright fabrications.
It’s a dangerous time for a play to give equal weight to John’s argument. Some of these scandals pale beside an era when the country seems divided over what the word “fact” means, and even whether facts actually exist. “We’re obviously getting as many facts as we can from the different places, and then we’ll determine which facts are credible,” Jared Kushner told CNN’s Van Jones recently, talking about the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. This from a man who used to own a newspaper.
The Lifespan of a Fact is on stage at Studio 54 (254 West 54th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10019) through January 13, 2019. Tickets and details
The Lifespan of a Fact by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell based on the Essay/Book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. Directed by Leigh Silverman. Featuring Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones, and Bobby Cannavale. 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. Review by Jonathan Mandell.