theater review

Theater Review: Truthiness on Trial, in The Lifespan of a Fact

Bobby Cannavale and Daniel Radcliffe in The Lifespan of a Fact. Photo: Peter Cunningham

“There is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.”Werner Herzog

“Look, Americans are their own fact-checkers. People know, they have their own facts and figures, in terms of meaning which facts and figures are important to them.”Kellyanne Conway

In the brisk, disconcerting brainteaser of a new play The Lifespan of a Fact, Bobby Cannavale, playing the real-life writer John D’Agata, argues passionately for what Werner Herzog would call ecstatic truth. He’s written an essay — 15 sweeping, wrenching, intimate pages that begin with the suicide of a teenage boy in Las Vegas and stretch into a meditation on the quiet desperation of American cities. Emily Penrose (Cherry Jones), the editor of a high-powered magazine where the essay is supposed to run, smells Pultizers in the air. The D’Agata essay could be her “legacy piece.” She enlists an intern, an eager-beaver Harvard graduate named Jim Fingal (Daniel Radcliffe), to fact-check the essay and gives him four-and-a-half days to do it. “Confirm every detail,” she says — but she also says, “We need to make a good-faith effort.” And suddenly, subtly, before Jim’s assignment is even underway, a gap starts to open up. Later, the young fact-checker will snap at Emily that what she keeps calling “a good-faith effort” is nothing more than negligence. Perhaps it fixes a date or a statistic here or there, but it leaves untouched hundreds of adjustments and elaborations, a whole tapestry of “little liberties” John has taken in order create a more illuminating, artful piece of writing. There’s a grand canyon between John “I’m not interested in accuracy; I’m interested in truth” D’Agata and Jim “Facts have to be the final measure of the truth” Fingal — and as writer, editor, and fact-checker attempt to bridge the expanse, its fogs only become thicker, its descents steeper, its footpaths more treacherous.

Directed with a light touch and a sense for gradual crescendo by Leigh Silverman, and constructed with elegance and precision on all fronts by the first all-female design team on Broadway (a fact that’s half Hooray! and half What?!), The Lifespan of a Fact gives you the satisfying rush of a good mystery or a crossword puzzle. Your brain gets to go the gym for 85 minutes. But it doesn’t get to go home feeling pumped and complacent. Instead, in a way that’s both invigorating and unsettling, the show leaves you hanging. It suspends you in that grand canyon gap, somewhere in the fog between fact and truth, between unimpeachable accuracy and revelatory narrative, and challenges you to find your own way out.

Playwrights Jeremy Kareken and David Murrell, along with Gordon Farrell, based their script on the book of the same name by the actual John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. It’s an unconventional text, combining D’Agata’s real essay “What Happens There” (the essay around which the play rotates) with Fingal’s copious notes, questions, corrections, and arguments with D’Agata, all written in red in the book’s margins. Originally commissioned by Harper’s and written in 2003, “What Happens There” became its own strange ethical odyssey, ultimately taking seven years to reach publication (and not in Harper’s). At times, watching The Lifespan of a Fact can feel a bit trippy: There are already so many layers built into the story’s content and background where what’s verifiable rubs up against what’s experiential, speculative, or creative — and now the whole thing is inside yet another box, the necessarily fictionalizing container of theater. I found myself thinking of the Mike Daisey scandal; of one of my personal heroes, the cinema verité–despising Werner Herzog; and, inevitably, of the ghastly truth-twisting and damnably effective narrative-crafting of the Trump regime. I’ve long believed in the Herzogian ideal, but as Radcliffe and Cannavale went for each other’s throats, I felt a little queasy, and I wondered: What becomes of the Herzogs and D’Agatas of this world when we’re living under a government that has co-opted and poisoned the spinning of fictions, peddling toxic sludge with their own righteous claims to possession of the deeper truth?

“When they start tearing you down,” Radcliffe’s Jim warns the writer, “they’re not going to say, ‘Wow, John D’Agata altered certain details in the service of poetic truth.’ They’re going to say, ‘Wow, John D’Agata lied’ … [And] if you think that’s bullshit then you don’t know what has happened to the world.” Play and production smartly let Jim, John, and Emily’s story exist without a timestamp. Yes, the real D’Agata and Fingal’s book came out in the lost days of hope known as 2012, but the world that Radcliffe is talking about is this one. And if the audience responses on the night I saw the show are any clue, it seems that in this world, people are ready for Jim to be the hero. Whenever the frustrated fact-checker let loose at Cannavale’s John — harping on detail after detail and accusing him of “[undermining] society’s trust in itself” — the people around me cheered. Radcliffe’s plucky charisma goes a long way: He’s a caffeinated bulldog, worrying stubbornly at Cannavale’s heels. “Don’t try to stare me down,” he warns the glaring writer, “I had older brothers. I will fuck your shit up.” Another Jim might come off as a pedant (and in plenty of ways, the character is one), but the tousel-headed, zippy Radcliffe gives him spirit and sincerity. The fact that he played Rosencrantz in a recent revival of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead makes sense — he’s an actor who can keep up with that kind of speed of thought.

Meanwhile, while Harry Potter is charming us (Silverman works in an A+ bit — hilarious and not too hammy — involving a closet under the stairs), the excellent, brooding Cannavale has a hard battle to fight. We’re primed to recoil from someone like John right now. Not only do some of his arguments come eerily close to Kellyanne Conway–style rhetoric (“I’m saying there’s a world of facts to choose from,” he tells Jim, “The wrong facts get in the way of the story”) — he’s also an alpha male and a bit of an arrogant asshole. In 2003 David Foster Wallace called the real John D’Agata “one of the most significant U.S. writers to emerge in the past few years,” and, at least as embodied by Cannavale, the pair have a good deal in common: Two massive and, in their own ways, hypermasculine intellects, unique and brilliant stylists overflowing with knowledge, opinion, and insight — zealous, prickly, deeply American writers whose non-fiction, perhaps in its very Americanness, shares a connection to the tall tale. Cannavale furrows his brow and prowls the stage like an aggrieved big cat: “I don’t write articles,” he says with withering disdain. “I’m not a journalist.” But he’s bone-certain of the integrity of his work. Pleading with Jones’s pragmatic, powerful Emily, who’s forced into arbitrating between the equally emotional writer and fact-checker, he tells her about his visit to the parents of the boy whose suicide sits at the center of his piece. “I took the essay to her — to Gail — that’s his mother’s name,” Cannavale insists, gravel-voiced and on the verge of tears, “I said ‘This is my best,’ and she said, ‘This is my son.’”

It’s Emily who, if we’re really listening, keeps us balanced between Jim and John, aware on a gut level that they aren’t hero and villain, righteous crusader and devious fabricator. “There is nothing more important than story,” she tells Jim early on. “I have seen that the right story at the right time changes the way people look at the events in their own lives …. Scientists say that life is atoms and forces and fluids and genomes. But we live in stories.” Through Jones’s poise and clarity, her ability to convey gravity without sanctimony, we understand that when Emily says story she means something greater than pure fact or fiction. Something of infinite mutability and power, as ingrained in us as those fluids and genomes, and something that can be used, as can most powerful human-made tools, both to create and destroy, to illuminate or to manipulate. In The Lifespan of a Fact, Emily bears the heaviest burden: She’s got to make the call on D’Agata’s essay. “I don’t have a codebook that tells me what matters and what doesn’t,” Jim has snarked earlier, but Emily hits right back: “There is no codebook, it’s called judgment.” In the end, it will all come down to her judgment — as individual and fallible as anyone’s — and despite the applause for Jim that I kept hearing around me, I found myself thinking, wishing: Publish it.

Why? Maybe because, if I’m honest, I share John’s distaste for Jim’s “easy certainty that facts are some herd of purebred white horses galloping majestically, looking down their noses at ambiguity or suspicion or nuance.” Or maybe because of Herzog. Or maybe because I fear that our justifiable reaction to this world’s powerful stealers of story — the ones who pervert it, who use it for gain, exploitation, oppression, and deception — will send us running into the arms of a self-defeating narrow-mindedness, a kind of strict constructionist worldview that pulls up the flowers along with the weeds — or even in place of them, because the weeds are so fat, so deep, so overwhelmingly hard to combat, and in our rage and our pain and our desperate need to feel effectual, we’re looking for something to eradicate.

Perhaps, as Jim would argue, the lifespan of a fact is infinite: Any given piece of information is, and never stops being, either accurate or inaccurate, and its worth should be valued accordingly. But we imperfect, imaginative human beings respond to storytellers — to shamans and griots and bards — and we’ll follow a prophet, even a false one, before an accountant any day. Near the end of The Lifespan of a Fact, Silverman suspends her three actors, who’ve been arguing non-stop, in an extended pause. They hover in the silence, and whether they’re any closer to what’s right, to what’s true, than when they started is an open question. But what fills the moment, at least for me, is a certainty that literalism alone won’t save us — that even when they seem incompatible, we need both Jim’s rigor and John’s revelation if we’re to have any hope against the corrupters of story.

Theater: Truthiness on Trial, in The Lifespan of a Fact