Review Roundup: What Did Critics Think of Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones, and Bobby Cannavale In THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT?
The world premiere of The Lifespan of a Fact officially opens on Broadway tonight, October 18 at Studio 54 (254 West 54th Street). The production stars Daniel Radcliffe (Privacy, "Harry Potter"), Cherry Jones (The Glass Menagerie, Doubt, "24"), and Bobby Cannavale (The Mother with the Hat, "I, Tonya"). Written by Jeremy Kareken & David Murrell and Gordon Farrell, the play is directed by Tony Award nominee Leigh Silverman.
Based on the book written by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal, the production is playing limited engagement through Sunday, January 13, 2019.
The determined young fact checker (Daniel Radcliffe) is about to stir up trouble. The demanding editor (Cherry Jones) has given him a big assignment: apply his skill to a groundbreaking piece by the unorthodox author (Bobby Cannavale). Together, they take on the high-stakes world of publishing in this new comedy of conflict. The ultimate showdown between fact and fiction is about to begin - with undeniably delicious consequences.
THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT is based on the stirring true story of John D'Agata's essay, "What Happens There," about the Las Vegas suicide of teenager Levi Presley. Jim Fingal, assigned to fact check the piece, ignited a seven-year debate on the blurred lines of what passes for truth in literary nonfiction.
Jesse Green, The New York Times: If that's dry, the dryness is in some ways a fascinating choice. There used to be a genre of Broadway comedy meant to be topical but not emotional. Plays like "Take Her, She's Mine," "Fair Game" and "Norman, Is That You?" treated current social issues - the generation gap, divorce, gay liberation and such - as touchstones for an evening's light entertainment, and were welcome as such. So is this one.
Michael Dale, BroadwayWorld: 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.
Matt Windman, amNY: While the production (directed by Leigh Silverman, "Violet") is lively and centered on three great actors fighting it out, the play itself is rather thin (little more than the back-and-forth dialogue on which it is based) and the characters are all one-dimensional. It is also problematic that the show (unlike the book) is unable to convey the full extent of D'Agata's essay, without which the subsequent analysis lacks context.
Tim Teeman, The Daily Beast: It is intelligent, thought-provoking, and challenging to the audience: the theatre equivalent of the best kind of fiendish board puzzle or chewy dinner-party topic. And yes, the ghost of Trump and his acolytes' words hang in the air, but more pronounced is the focus on what counts as fact and the perception of fact in what we read and visually and aurally consume every day.
Adam Feldman, Time Out NY: If Fingal gets the upper hand in The Lifespan of a Fact, it's partly thanks to Radcliffe's appeal as an actor. His Fingal may be a persnickity fussbudget with a dubious sense of which battles to pick, but his bite is the bite of an underdog; he's scruffy and small, and his hyperintensity reads as passionate integrity that doesn't know how to contain itself. Cannavale's D'Agata, by contrast, is arrogant and dismissive, and his resistance to Fingal's critiques has an undercurrent of vanity and pique. (Whereas Fingal presents reams of hard evidence, in sometimes comical excess, the playwrights give D'Agata only a few philosophical arguments.)
Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal: Mr. Radcliffe's post-"Harry Potter" career is a vanishingly rare testament to how serious a grown-up child star can become if he has sufficient talent-and resolve. In addition to choosing offbeat, consistently interesting film roles, he's also turned himself into a stage actor of exceptional quality, one who is more than good enough to go up against Mr. Cannavale and Ms. Jones, two of Broadway's very best performers, without getting his lunch munched. They are, of course and as always, as good as it's possible to be, and Ms. Silverman proves herself yet again to be the kind of director whose presence at the helm of a production is a sure sign of high quality.
David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: If this makes the play sound in any way didactic, more dialectic than drama, be assured it's not. The exchanges have the vigorous back-and-forth zing of a sweaty squash match, not to mention a stinging relevance to so much of what's been happening for years now in American social, cultural and political discourse. It's hard to imagine this pithy play ever being more timely or more ideally cast, and the dynamic of the three actors is thrilling to watch.
Marilyn Stasio, Variety: If we were living through a different moment in time, the writer's fabricated but emotionally wrenching "truth" would easily outweigh the fact-checker's chilly reality of events. But with the leader of our nation stomping on truth as we know it, and the very essence of reality imperiled by political fact-stretchers, the debate at the heart of this play transcends comedy and demands serious attention.
Robert Hofler, TheWrap: Beyond the nonsense that "The Lifespan of a Fact" makes of journalism, there is the little dramatic problem that none of the three characters grows or develops in the course of 90 minutes.
Greg Evans, Deadline: Certainly the top-grade quality of the cast (and the fascinating real-life story behind the play) has us hoping for answers, or at least a rousing good yarn. There's a little disappointed on both fronts.
Alexis Soloski, The Guardian: Fact: Lifespan of a Fact is one of the three best new plays open on Broadway. Fact: it is early in the season; only three new plays are open. Facts, as the show seems to insist, are tricky things. Do we insist on scrupulous accuracy if that accuracy effaces larger truths? Can we call a thing true if we've massaged data to get there? Is truth an absolute anyway? Well, at least it's nice to see Daniel Radcliffe on Broadway again. Fact.
Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly: There is some sharp repartee, though, and few fun in jokes (nobody puts baby in the corner, but someone might put Harry Potter in a cupboard). And in the last half hour, the onion does begin to peel for John at least, who would otherwise come off as just the sort of tetchy, one-dimensional blowhard who may or may not have the actual talent to back up his swollen self-regard.
Sara Holden, Vulture: 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 90 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.
Melissa Rose Bernardo, New York Stage Review: As a play, Lifespan isn't much more substantial than the paper your Playbill is printed on. It's really just a fact-checker and a writer arguing, tennis match-style, about the semantics of a magazine story: the tale of a teenager who committed suicide in Las Vegas. How it took three playwrights, Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell-working from the book by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal (the guys portrayed by Cannavale and Radcliffe)-is anyone's guess. But it makes for a weirdly compelling 95 minutes.
Jesse Oxfeld, New York Stage Review: The Lifespan of a Fact is presented as an urgent and timely examination of facts and accuracy, of how we can know what we think we know and what obligations nonfiction does or does not have to both mundane details and fundamental truths. But it knows its answers before it begins: For the sake of a brisk 90 minutes, the play changes the details of its story as needed.
Christopher Kelly, NJ.com: What's most impressive about this stage version, written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell and directed by Leigh Silverman ("Violet"), is that it transforms something potentially insider-ish and wonky into a surprisingly funny and urgent drama. Radcliffe and Cannavale are perfectly cast foils, the one earnest to a fault, the other all swagger and self-importance. The terrific Jones functions as the audience stand-in, her allegiances shifting each time the persnickety Fingal finds another point of complaint in D'Agata's essay.
Roma Torre, NY1: And while the work strives to be even-handed, it's clear the playwrights are more sympathetic to Jim's side of the debate. Daniel Radcliffe plays the unrelenting noodge to perfection. And when the two go at it, Bobby Cannavale's arch sense of entitlement as John makes for a most compelling dynamic. In the middle is Cherry Jones as the exasperated Emily, and she too is terrific. I can't exactly say "The Lifespan of a Fact" is a great play, but it is an important one. And as the assault on objectivity escalates throughout the world, I wish it a long and healthy lifespan of its own.
Barbara Schuler, Newsday: The play offers no conclusion, though it's easy enough to Google what actually happened. If nothing else, in these days of information overload and questions of fake news arising from the highest levels of government, this work offers valuable information on the process as it should be - at least in the eyes of those who consider themselves journalists.
Chris Jones, NY Daily News: There are contrivances - the play does not acknowledge that most fabulists, like most abusers, are serial offenders. And its binary conflict does not allow for the truth that even the most fiction-loving writer probably would prefer to avoid being sued for libel. But then it's a self-aware comedy: at one point, Radcliffe's truly relentless Jim climbs all the way inside a closet under his quarry's stairs, delighting the Harry Potter fans in the house. That is not the only meta moment. The writers based their play on a real essay penned by the writer John D'Agata and the editor Jim Fingal, which was in turn based on their actual encounter in getting an article ready for publication. So it's a blend of fact and fiction. Right?
Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Post: Jim is the most fleshed-out character. As he morphs from earnest to rabidly overzealous, a bearded, bed-headed Radcliffe delivers a deft, deliciously sly comic performance. Alongside Cannavale's strapping John, he looks puny, an underdog in every way.
Cannavale has less to work with, but digs deep and gets beyond John's puffy self-importance to find something poignant.
Jones, ever indispensable, adds heaps of humor as the voice of reason. That's something we need more of - and that's a fact.