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A CurtainUp Review
The Lifespan of a Fact

. . . the right story at the right time changes the way people look at the events in their own lives.
— Emily Penrose, the East Coast magazine editor played by Cherry Jones in The Lifespan of a Fact

A kid grows up on welfare. No Dad in the picture. Gets kicked out of high school. That's not a story. It's just details.
— John D'Agata, the author and Las Vegas native played by Bobby Cannavale

How can you even for a moment claim that facts are negotiable? And even if they are, you're asking an intern to defend the actual nature of the world as it stands against — against white lies, maybe, but lies.
— Jim Fingal, the Ivy League educated intern/fact-checker played by Daniel Radcliffe.

Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones, and Bobby Cannavale (Photo: Peter Cunningham)
For a statesman with no interest in the arts, President Trump has inordinate impact on theater-makers. In the 20-odd months of this presidency, we've seen dystopian fantasies such as Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future and 1984; dramas like the well-crafted Sweat and the quickly assembled Building the Wall; and novel confections including David Carl's Trump Lear and the Triad's weekly First Annual Trump Family Special. As the 45th POTUS's third year in office approaches, Broadway has finally come up with a boulevard comedy that's ideal for this era.

The Lifespan of a Fact has been concocted by a committee of three — yes, three — dramatists, Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell. It's derived from an unlikely source: an idiosyncratic book, also called The Lifespan of a Fact, by essayist John D'Agata and fact-checker Jim Fingal.

Published in 2012, the book reprints a true-crime article by D'Agata, commissioned by Harper's and eventually published in the bimonthly magazine The Believer (founded in San Francisco and now headquartered in Las Vegas). The article concerns a 16-year-old Nevadan's suicidal leap from the observation deck of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino. The book also includes Fingal's detailed notes on the accuracy (or lack thereof) of the factual claims made in the article, plus D'Agata's responses to Fingal's concerns. Rather than restricting themselves to the real-life events surrounding D'Agata's article, the dramatists have allowed their imaginations to run riot. Anyone familiar with publishing will be conscious from the play's first scene that what happens on stage bears scant resemblance to what goes on in the business and editorial offices of a periodical.

Contrary to all expectations, the stage version of The Lifespan of a Fact is a zippy, literate romp. With their funny, if preposterous, plot and witty dialogue, the playwrights pursue various questions raised by the combative relationship of an essayist unwilling to be fettered by facts and a fact-checker determined to hold the essayist's feet to the nonfiction fire. The script, directed by the talented Leigh Silverman, is 90 minutes of theatrical catnip for three pros — in alphabetical order, Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones, and Daniel Radcliffe. (in alphabetical order).

Cannavale plays a fictionalized version of D'Agata. He's a Nevada native who has risen from a humble upbringing to become a lion of belles-lettres. Jones is Emily Penrose, the superstar editor of a New York glossy that has a distinguished history, national circulation, and enormous pride in its punctilious editorial policies. Radcliffe is the recent Harvard graduate, interning at the magazine, whom Emily assigns to verify the facts in D'Agata's article.

The Lifespan of a Fact is one of those comedies in which things go wrong as soon as the curtain's up, with the characters spending the rest of the play in desperation at the level of Abbott and Costello moving a grand piano down a narrow flight of stairs. This "was supposed to be a quick fact check!" exclaims Emily as she arrives in Las Vegas to referee that the struggle between her irascible author and the tenacious fact-checker.

Emily had assumed that Fingal's assignment would consist in little more than "confirm[ing] a few dates, interact[ing] with a respected author, mak[ing] sure the names are spelled correctly." What she couldn't foresee was that Fingal, in reviewing the article's factual allegations, would compile a 130-page spreadsheet of problematic references.

Like most comedies, The Lifespan of a Fact concerns miscommunication. D'Agata, though tilling the fields of nonfiction, believes he's entitled to unlimited artistic license. Emily admires his artistry but has to contend with the rules of the marketplace. "You may or may not be a journalist," she tells him, "but I am and my magazine, like it or not, is going to be judged by journalistic standards." As for Fingal, he's an intern with a job to do and a future to look out for. "I don't have a codebook that tells me what matters and what doesn't," he laments. "There is no codebook," Emily snaps. "It's called judgment."

From the moment they encounter each other, Radcliffe (spot-on as the humorously humorless American intern) and Cannavale (hilariously surly as a man contemptuous of facts that don't support his view of the world) are engaged in a battle royal. This is a contest that cleverly reflects the partisan roistering of current American life.

Jones is entirely convincing as the urbane New Yorker who must cater to multiple segments of the population, including the poles, in the interest of her magazine's circulation. Though she hasn't been on stage as much since her television career took off with 24 (as well as Transparent and The Handmaid's Tale, Jones is the Helen Hayes of our day — an audience's darling, inhabiting thoroughly and believably every character she undertakes, seldom modifying her patrician southern accent.

To complement the superb cast, Jeffrey Richards and his host of fellow producers have recruited a team of first-class designers, including Mimi Lien (scenery), Jen Schriever (lighting), Lucy Mackinnon (projections), Linda Cho (costumes), and Palmer Hefferan (sound and original music). Lien captures the socio-political divisiveness of the moment with the contrast between Emily's sleek, chic editorial offices in New York (with snazzy projections by Mackinnon) and the ranch-style house, retro but charmless, that Cannavale's character occupies in the Trump country of Nevada.

The play itself moves at a high velocity that obscures, at least to some extent, what's incredible in the plot and what's deficient in the characters' arguments. It's a diverting hour and a half reminiscent of Broadway comedies from the middle of the 20th century (Lindsay and Crouse's State of the Union, for instance) and blessedly unlike the kind of journalistic comedy-drama it might have been in other hands (Lucy Prebble's short-lived Enron comes to mind). Most of all, this is an opportunity to see three of the best actors of our day kicking up their heels in an old fashioned boulevard comedy that's the timeliest, if not the most profound, show in town.

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The Lifespan of a Fact
Written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell
Based on the Essay/Book by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal
Original Music by Palmer Hefferan
Directed by Leigh Silverman
Bobby Cannavale (John),(Emily),Daniel Radcliffe (Jim)
cenic Design by Mimi Lien
Costume Design by Linda Cho
Lighting Design by Jen Schriever
Sound Design by Palmer Hefferan
Projection Design by Lucy Mackinnon
Hair and Wig Design by Charles G. LaPointe
Production Stage Manager: Martha Donaldson
Stage Manager: Brian Rardin
Running Tim: 1 hour and 35 minutes, no intermission
Roud about Theatre Company's Studio 54 at 254 West 54th Street 212.239.6200.
at 254 West 54th Street 212.239.6200.
From 9/20/18; opening 10/18/18; closing 1/13/19 Reviewed by Charles Wright at 10/11 press preview

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