This is the story of an essay—definitely not an article—and the subjectivity of facts.
It’s a battle between cold reality and art of the written word. Neither side wins or loses this war though. The Lifespan of a Fact simply raises questions and points out interesting insights. It doesn’t attempt to draw any conclusions, which is to the detriment of the play and the wider world of publishing it’s attempting to comment on.
Jim Fingal (Daniel Radcliffe) is an overeager, privileged Harvard grad who has been tasked with fact-checking a new 15-page essay from esteemed essayist John D’Agata (Bobby Cannavale) by his boss Emily. This small, scruffy young man is neurotic and doggedly determined to complete his assignment, but he can’t get past the first sentence. There are enough factual errors for any editor to want to throw the offending piece of writing out completely, but Emily (Cherry Jones) needs it. She works at one of the few remaining magazines and a piece by D’Agata will sell copies.
Emily’s office is pristine, modern and mostly white. It screams “magazine editor’s office” in an unimaginative way. No extremely busy editor is that organized, sorry. The office is a metaphor for Emily. Her character is so professional that it’s almost a disservice. She’s a tenacious, smart and quick-witted editor, but you don’t find out anything else about her while Jim and John have backstories.
Based on a book by the real Jim Fingal and John D’Agata, the play departs from its source material to condense a 7-year-long story into 90 minutes. Written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell, The Lifespan of a Fact might explore how ambiguous facts can get, but it feels like a half-written sentence. Though the performances elevate this brand new play.
The set, designed by Mimi Lien, has a rolling mechanism that brings Emily and Jim’s desks on and off stage, which makes transitions less awkward and unwieldy in a tight show. Very high-tech, computerized music by Palmer Hefferan often plays during these transitions, bringing to mind the soundtrack of a newsroom and is completely distracting.
On a projected screen, the audience sees Jim and John interact over email. Radcliffe’s comedic timing is on full display here and pitch perfect when he realizes John takes great offense to having his essay called “an article.” As Jim’s anxiety heightens, he flies to Las Vegas to go over his questions with John—to Emily’s horror.
Tall, commanding and narcissistic John is essentially the Guy in Your MFA Twitter come to life. He bends and even fudges the fact to fit his narrative and because sometimes he just “likes the rhythm” of certain words better. Cannavale, who usually plays a slightly scary, overconfident man in films and movies, does what he’s great at. He’s insufferable and spars with Radcliffe with ease, generating enjoyable sharp banter.
John’s home is the opposite of Emily’s immaculate office. It looks lived in. The furniture is slightly worn. D’Agata becomes more of a flesh-and-blood character rather than a fake Twitter user when he’s in this house. The house does not conform to what you think of when you think of a famous writer’s living quarters.
All of this is staged wonderfully by director Leigh Silverman. She’s brought the best out of her three actors, the show never feels too long or short and has done the best she can with the half-baked play. The show is funny, most of the jokes hit their target and the pacing is just right. For a show that is all talk, it never feels boring.
The problem Lifespan of a Fact runs into is that by exaggerating everything they make John seem like a hack. He claims to be in the same class as Joan Didion, but he’s got the most purple prose. This works half of the time, and yet sometimes it shows the playwrights’ heavy hands. D’Agata’s inability to make any compromises about actual facts and his extremely wordy writing style makes you wonder why Emily would consider trying to push a piece of his writing through a fact-checker in such a small span of time.
The show tries to grow introspective at the end after constant fighting between Jim and John, with Emily refereeing. The three think about the consequences of running blatantly false information about how a girl committed suicide. This tone switch doesn’t work.
If it’s an in-depth investigation of the state of magazine journalism they wanted, perhaps they should have attempted a longer show or better yet, a long-form article in The New Yorker.