Chief New York Critic
Outer Critics Circle/Drama Desk
Emily Penrose (a guarded and steely Cherry Jones), Editor-in Chief of a high-end publication, hopes to score big on the publication of a “lyrical essay” written by longtime associate John D’Agata (a languid and tenderly resilient Bobby Cannavale). She has shut down the presses and pulled the story about “Congressional Spouses” to publish the essay about the suicide of a young man in Las Vegas. And she is hoping this essay will boost magazine sales and continue to secure her position as a successful editor. Because she is aware that John often ignores the importance of facts, she hires the new intern Jim Fingal (a self-absorbed and cautious Daniel Radcliffe) to fact-check the essay before publication. He agrees he can fulfill the assignment over an extended weekend.
What ensues is a triumvirate of well-positioned “leaders” each having the ability to upend the other two members’ goals. Although the intriguing script focus primarily on Jim’s dogged fact-finding and John’s stubborn insistence that art trumps facts, there are significant themes centering on motivation, power, dominance, entitlement, and rhetorical argument. “The Lifespan of a Fact,” currently running at Studio 54, raises more enduring questions than it answers – which is expected with three raconteurs vying for dominion.
John is a storyteller. He tells stories that he believes are relevant and connect to the readers and to the moment in history in which they live and try to navigate through with some modicum of success. He believes his essay about Levi Presley’s death is important as are the other events that transpired on the same day in Las Vegas. “On that day in Las Vegas when Levi Presley died, five others died from two types of cancer, four from heart attacks, three because of strokes. It was a day of two suicides by gunshot as well as a suicide from hanging.” That is John’s story and he is sticking to it.
Jim is a fact checker. Emily assigns him to check the facts in John’s essay to avoid law suits and maintain the credibility of her magazine. Jim cannot seem to get beyond the first few paragraphs. He creates one-hundred-and-thirty pages of spreadsheet and “notes” that call into question John’s credibility. Emily encourages Jim to understand that “we live in stories. Events organized to make ourselves known to each other and to history. Organized in a way that gives our lives meaning.” Jim believes the word “story comes from the Greek historia – an accurate retelling” and continues to question whether John has reported the correct numbers of deaths on the day Levi died.
In one corner it is the importance of and necessity for facts: in the other is the importance of and necessity for rich and enduring stories that are transformative and redemptive. The battle rages with Emily attempting to referee the fight. Both she and Jim end up in Las Vegas with John and the struggle for a resolution escalates. At one point, Jim determines that Levi Presley did not even exist despite John’s insistence that he shared the essay with Levi’s mother Gail. John said, “this is my best” and she said, “this is my son.” The obvious connection to the current debate concerning the place of truth in politics plays well in “The Lifespan of a Fact.” The playwrights develop their argument carefully and with the requisite logos, ethos, and pathos.
Under Leigh Silverman’s exquisite direction, the cast delivers a profoundly moving ensemble performance that insists the audience make the ultimate choice whether Emily will publish the essay. Fact and fiction have significant roles to play in humankind’s story telling. It has become strikingly evident in the last two years, however, that fiction has no place in the development of global policy-making and domestic governance. The jury is still out on whether “Levi climbed the fence and sat on the ledge for 48 seconds, then jumped.” John argues that “It is not a crime to try to find the music in a boy’s life.” Jim counters “people’s lives aren’t chord progressions you can rearrange at will.”
THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT
“The Lifespan of a Fact” stars Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones, and Bobby Cannavale.
“The Lifespan of a Fact” features scenic design by Mimi Lien, costume design by Linda Cho, lighting design by Jen Schriever, sound design by Palmer Hefferan and projection design by Lucy Mackinnon.
“The Lifespan of a Fact” is currently on Broadway at Studio 54 (254 W 54th Street). For more information about the show including performance schedule and to purchase tickets, visit https://www.lifespanofafact.com/. Running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes without intermission.
Photo: Daniel Radcliffe in “The Lifespan of a Fact.” Credit: Peter Cunningham.