Is there such a thing as just a little fake news? Or is that like being just a little comatose? Broadway’s The Lifespan of a Fact, a new based-on-reality play starring a totally-committed triumvirate of Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones and Bobby Cannavale, poses some big questions about small truths.
Certainly the top-grade quality of the cast (and the fascinating real-life story behind the play) has us hoping for answers, or at least a rousing good yarn. There’s a little disappointed on both fronts.
First, the true-life background: In 2003, author John D’Agata was commissioned by Harper‘s magazine to write an essay that would reflect on, among other things, the recent suicide of 16-year-old boy who had leaped to his death from the observation deck of a Las Vegas hotel.
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After a fact-checking process, the magazine rejected the piece over disagreements with the author about, well, facts. D’Agata then took his essay to The Believer magazine, setting off another round of fact-checking, this time with a detail-minded researcher named Jim Fingal. The revised essay was eventually published in the magazine under the title About a Mountain, to considerable acclaim.
The tale of the author and the fact-checker didn’t end there, though – the two continued their debates and revisions for no fewer than seven years, eventually resulting in the 2012 book The Lifespan of a Fact, which included both an early draft of the essay and the brain-teasing exchanges between author and fact-checker. To say the book was critically well-received is an understatement: NPR said it “might be the most improbably entertaining book ever published” and the L.A. Times said it was “A vivid and reflective meditation on the nature of nonfiction as literary art.”
But how to transfigure this years-long intellectual adventure into an 85-minute stage drama? And one that unspools over the course of a few days, no less. That’s a puzzle that playwrights Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell haven’t solved. Some diminishment is to be expected – D’Agata’s expansive, multi-layered essay, for starters, is here slimmed down to what comes across, frankly, as a not-particularly-complicated account of a suicide.
The boiled-down play, directed with efficiency by Leigh Silverman (Violet) is this: Magazine editor Emily (Jones, commanding as ever) assigns rookie fact-checker Jim (Radcliffe, convincing in his borderline mania) to get to work on what seems to be a magazine-saving essay (let’s pretend there are such things) by brash literary light John (Cannavale, dialing down his Boardwalk Empire bark just enough). For reasons that make no more sense onstage than they do in description, the kid has only a long-ish weekend to complete the task, and soon he’s flying from New York to Nevada, on his own accord, to hash things out, in person, with the author. An exasperated Emily will join them soon enough.
As the nervous but dedicated Jim examines each and every detail – 34 strip clubs in Vegas or 31? Was so-and-so born in Mississippi? Was that bar called the Boston Saloon or the Bucket of Blood? – he infuriates an author pompous enough to make statements like “I take liberties with things that deepen the central truth of the piece” and “this isn’t Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker.”
But you don’t have to be Mr. Shawn to know the difference between facts as bluntly stated as the ones presented here and fiction that we must take on faith is as brilliant as its author insists. Nor do we need the invocation of Mr. Shawn as some sort of unreachable ethical template when Ronan Farrow is just around the corner. Lifespan doesn’t come close to building John’s case. The writer-within-the-play (and his editor) can wax literary over the rhythm and sound of 34 versus 31, or whether anyone besides a dead kid’s parents will care whether her suicide came from a leap or a rope, but an audience better be persuadable that such distinctions are not only arguable but illuminating, or there goes the play. And, so, there goes the play.
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