It is the recent past, let's say within the last decade, and Emily Penrose, (Cherry Jones) who is editor of an unnamed magazine that needs a leg up, is eager to publish a story by John D’Agata (Bobby Cannavale). The story is beautifully written, and touches on a very sensitive subject, the suicide of a young man who jumped off of the 1,149-foot tower of the Stratosphere hotel in Vegas. Before Emily pulls the trigger on the piece, however, she wants to be certain-certain-certain that the facts in the story are correct. Emily knows D’Agata and his relationship with facts. It is tenuous. D’Agata is an essayist for who doesn't let facts trip up good writing.
Emily puts out a call for a fact checker who will be willing to give up his weekend and deliver a report that satisfies Emily by first thing Monday morning when the production facility in Kankakee, Illinois will be checking in for permission to publish. Enter Jim Fingal (Daniel Radcliffe) who is eager to please and a bit of an obsessive sort. No fact will go unturned, starting with the very first sentence, which mentions not only the suicide, but lap dancing, a bottle of Tabasco sauce, and a chicken who played board games.
Welcome to The Lifespan Of A Fact at Broadway's Studio 54. In this case it doesn't last long, ye olde lifespan. Facts are crumbling left and right while we watch. Instead of grasping the larger picture, a la D’Agata, Fingal examines each individual brick and its layer of mortar. He was given a task and by golly he is going to complete his assigned task or die trying - an outcome to which D'Agata is less and less opposed as time goes by.
Fingal is blind to objections in his pursuit of the facts. Nothing that Emily or D'Agata can do will stop him. He is a dog with a bone who thinks nothing of tracking D'Agata down to question him in person. Hence the conflict - what value is the truth when set against good writing. When cornered, D'Agata cites Plutarch, Herodotus and Cicero, who, supposedly, examined the role of fact in art centuries ago. Who knows if they did? It sounds good. This is only one of the arrows in D'Agata's quiver. His main point is that the parents of the boy who killed himself agreed that the essay sounded like who their son was.
Fingal does not move off of his pedestal one inch. Facts are facts. There can be no grey area.
So which person is right, we are asked. The one on this side of the fence in favor of fact, or the one on that side of the fence in favor of story. Which lifespan is the one on which we should focus?
It is left to Emily, who is the Oreo filling in this cookie, to make the decision. She is Queen Solomon who never makes it to the "let's cut the baby in half" part.
This is a comedy in so many ways, and Radcliffe in particular is up to the task with Cannavale not far behind. In addition there are a few intimate scenes that let us in on the closets these characters keep stocked with secrets and intrigue. These could be caricatures, but the authors avoid that trap. The veneers are peeled away until these three are left with only belief and the willingness to defend theirs.
While setting out with excellent intention, the play runs off the rails about half way in. Fingal's fact checking begins with the first sentence, makes it to the second and then falls into a monotonous tempo. There is no crescendo that spikes our interest or the characters' willingness to go all in. That is unfortunate because these three actors are up to the task. Radcliffe handles being the core of this tale with a seamless performance. Cannavale executes his exasperation with a cornucopia of offerings. Jones, while appearing stuck physically in one chopping motion after another, pulls the ship of determination and decision into port. We are left watching her every move as the play coasts to full stop.
The conclusion leaves us suspended in the argument without knowing what happened. This is a slick cop out. Unless of course you want to fact check this true story. I did.
(Photo by Peter Cunningham)
What the popular press says...
"With its cast, its dead-on timing, its perfect set by Mimi Lien and sound design by Palmer Hefferan, it would probably nail its laughs even without the dialogue. It’s what you call a good time. Of course, I can’t prove that."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"Like most issue plays these days, this one ends on a note of ambiguity, but I suspect that most people in the audience will have made up their minds by then. It may be a problem when you can’t see the forest for the trees, but if the trees aren’t real, can you even call it a forest?"
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"Written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell, The Lifespan of a Fact is a riveting 90 minutes. Leigh Silverman directs with a sharp eye, encouraging her excellent actors to flesh out the roles with natural humor and nuance."
Roma Torre for NY1
"At the first press performance of the crackerjack new Broadway play The Lifespan of a Fact, the laughs seemed especially explosive from copy editors in the audience, along with every writer who has ever dealt with that endangered species. But the spry humor, rippling tension and provocative reflections of this ingenious adaptation of the sui generis book of the same name will by no means speak exclusively to those of us who make our livings as members of the fourth estate."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter
"Harry Potter had no sense of humor whatsoever, but Daniel Radcliffe proves to be a master of comedy in The Lifespan of a Fact, the brainy Broadway play that Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell adapted from a magazine article — better described, perhaps, as that classier literary form, the Essay — and a subsequent book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...