BWW Review: Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones and Bobby Cannavale Hilariously Debate The Value of Truth in THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT
"I take liberties with things that deepen the central truth of the piece," explains writer John D'Agata. "Don't get bogged down in the details, keep your eye on the big picture."
Such an attitude is usually accepted in the theatre, where playwrights frequently sacrifice exact historical accuracy for the sake of stronger story-telling. But John has written an essay about a recent suicide in Las Vegas that Editor-in-Chief Emily Penrose feels is the kind of important work that can gain new respect for her magazine.
"Why does a boy kill himself? Is there any comprehending the grief it causes? How ruinous it is? Is there such a thing as consolation, or is even the idea an insult?"
All the piece needs is a thorough fact-check. On Wednesday she hands it over to bright and eager Harvard-educated intern Jim Fingal with instructions to have the assignment completed first thing Monday morning. By Sunday afternoon, he's still struggling with the first paragraph.
If you're thinking that this sharp and hilarious social commentary scripted by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell is all about fake news and alternative facts, think again. The inspiration came from the real-life working relationship between the actual John D'Agata and Jim Fingal and their subsequent book from which the play takes its name.
The stage D'Agata's insistence that what he wrote was an essay, not an article, and thus not obligated to uphold journalistic standards may remind playgoers of the unfair way monologist Mike Daisey was treated when his fact-based play about abusive working conditions in Chinese factories producing Apple products, THE AGONY AND THE ECSTACY OF STEVE JOBS, was held up to the same scrutiny as a newspaper report.
The writer is played with gruff, gonzo-lit sex appeal by Bobby Cannavale; a crackling combo of toughness and poetics. To him, the accuracy of peripheral details can be sacrificed for literary excellence. So if the correct number of topless bars in Las Vegas can be changed to a number that gives the sentence a more appealing flow, or if the wording describing an occurrence at the blandly named Boston Saloon can be tweaked to make it seem like it took place at a neighboring dive called Buckets of Blood, the risk of having to publish a small retraction that nobody will see is totally worth it. (Set designer Mimi Lien cleverly depicts his home utilizing a multitude of contrasting angles.)
But such license is a foreign concept for Fingal, played with button-down intensity by Daniel Radcliffe, giving his best New York stage performance to date. Unlike D'Agata who lives the romance of powerful writers swaying public opinion by manipulating cold facts into persuasive art, Fingal grew up in a world where the Internet can make anyone with searching skills an expert in uncovering the truth and he understands the power of anonymous trolls who are always ready to pounce.
While their exchanges regarding trivial matters such as the number of cars in a traffic jam or the exact color of a building's bricks get consistent laughs, the play seamlessly delves into more philosophical debates when details regarding the deceased young man are shown to be inaccurate.
"By misrepresenting official and searchable documents, you undermine your argument," says Fingal. "You undermine society's trust in itself. Which is why facts have to be the final measure of the truth."
"Even the most precise numbers in the world tell you nothing" counters D'Agata.
Meanwhile, Penrose is counting the minutes until deadline. Played with poise and straightforward savviness by Cherry Jones, she is the imposing voice of reason who knows that sometimes success means striking a balance between doing what's right and doing what sells.
The trio sizzles with chemistry under director Leigh Silverman, who delivers a tight, tense mounting that nails every funny moment without sacrificing the authenticity of the play's arguments.
So canny in its writing and presentation, The Lifespan of a Fact may not only inspire audiences to think more closely about the sources from which they get their news, but maybe even to question the accuracy of the social media memes they've been liking and forwarding.