As a critic and journalist I have undergone the experience of having my work fact-checked, whether by me, an editor or a professional fact-checker. Therefore, the subject of the play “The Lifespan of a Fact” has built-in personal interest. Fortunately, it turns out not to be a treatise but a rollicking, fast-talking comedy with contemporary implications delivered entertainingly by a perfect cast.
The play by Jeremy Kareken & David Murrell and Gordon Farrell is based on the essay/book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, and gets razor-sharp direction by Leigh Silverman.
Ever-appealing Cherry Jones plays Emily Penrose as a tough magazine editor in New York about to publish a piece by John D’Agata, depicted as an egotistical writer played dynamically by Bobby Cannavale. It is an exploration involving a suicide by a 16-year-old boy who jumped from a high floor of a Las Vegas casino-hotel.
Emily needs a fact checker, and as the play opens she is interviewing an applicant for the task, Jim Fingal, played by Daniel Radcliffe, who speaks in rapid sentences and is eager to get the job, which, starting on Wednesday, must be finished over the weekend for a Monday deadline. He’s hired. Emily doesn’t realize what she is getting.
Jim turns out to be a zealot who digs into his assignment with a vengeance. Challenging every bit of the article (John fumes at it even being called an article and insists it is an essay), Jim infuriates John, as well as Emily, who needs the job done quickly.
It is hilarious when Jim even heads to Las Vegas to investigate in person, and winds up in John’s home with incessant confrontations that are extremely funny. The essay is only 15 pages long, but Jim’s factual challenges take 130 pages to explain. Emily flies out to Las Vegas for a three-way meeting, which gets more humorously exasperating as it explodes into anger and ultimately a question of whether the “essay” should be published at all.
The issue arises as to how to balance factual errors against the validity of a piece as a whole that is trying to shed serious light on a sensitive subject. How much liberty can an author take? John insists that the beauty of his writing should take precedence. Jim is a stickler for accuracy on points large and small.
Of course, the battle being thrashed out assumes special importance at this time when our president rails against “fake news” and there is talk about “alternate facts.” The play, although a comedy, highlights and symbolizes a major issue for our country.
Although the 80-minute, intermission-less romp can grow a bit tedious in spots after a while despite the acting expertise, it basically comes across as a very funny, witty show offering blasts of laughter in line after line. Radcliffe proves himself to be an increasingly fine stage actor, and he deserves an award just for his speed-talking. Jones and Cannavale are also terrific. At Studio 54, 245 West 54th Street. Reviewed November 19, 2018.