Friday, November 23, 2018

Review of "The Lifespan of a Fact"

The essential question in the play, The Lifespan of a Fact, is what defines a fact, in this case, within a non-fiction magazine article?   Is it necessary for a fact(s) to be thoroughly vetted before publication?  Or should the author of a piece have some leeway with the veracity of the facts to allow for editorially flexibility? 

Playwrights Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell have taken the book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal and fashioned an intriguing, rooted in truth, story.  Emily (Cherry Jones), the editor of a high-powered magazine, recruits a young, eager staff member, Jim (Daniel Radcliffe), to fact check a prize-winning article by star journalist John (Bobby Cannavale).  Taking his assignment to heart, Jim, who comes across as somewhat OCD, begins to scrutinize the writer with what seems like, at first, minutiae, but eventually encompasses more.  This leads to discussions on what exactly is a fact within the context of a truth-based article (or essay, as John states).  Should a writer be handcuffed to the facts or, if the essence of the story is correct, some latitude should be allowed?  There are numerous outbursts, justifications, and pleadings by all parties.  Even the editor Emily becomes involved in the fray, but are her motives simply journalistic ethics or are there other reasons clouding her judgement? In the end, who decides?

The premise of The Lifespan of a Fact has taken on more urgency in today’s world of “fake news” and sometimes low editorial standards.  What adds weight to the play is the nature of the unnamed publication in question.  This is a very reputable magazine and not some fly-by-night news periodical.  What does it say about standards and the public’s quest for truth if the material in this type of journal is disputable?

The performances and substance of the show can be riveting, thought-provoking, and entertaining.  However, this 85 minute, intermission-less production can also become tedious and prosaic as Jim continues to hound John about the facts.  There is just so much restating of this important, but basic question that can be staged.

As the show progresses, you begin to take sides.  Whose argument and rationalization is more meaningful and defensible?  As someone who came of age during Watergate, where reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein famously would not print an accusation or revelation unless there were two corroborating pieces of evidence, my allegiances lean towards accuracy.  I found John’s explanation more self-serving.

The three-person cast is first-rate.  Daniel Radcliffe, who has become a sure-footed and adroit performer, is superb as the eager, passionate, youthful employee.  He brings an intensity, but also innocence to his character, which at times can border on being a bit too over-the-top in his pursuit of the truth.  Bobby Cannavale, projects honesty and zeal.  He provides an air of detachment to the hubbub swirling around him.  But beyond his outwardly cantankerous nature, there is a principled professional fervent about his methods.   Cherry Jones has a commanding presence in a role where she is more referee between the other two characters.  Her forcefulness, though, keeps the play on track to its surprising, but satisfying ending.

Director Leigh Silverman has the good fortune working with seasoned actors in what is, primarily, a two-person debate.  She smartly builds the dramatic arc slowly, layering in more information and inquiries as the play moves forward.   She skillfully meshes the comedic side of the work with the serious and contemplative aspects of the production.  Her most pivotal choice is the use of silence at the conclusion of the show, which speaks volumes of what has just occurred before us.

The Lifespan of a Fact, a provocative production that is sure to provoke debates and discussions.

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