BWW Review: THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT at Repertory Theatre Of St. Louis
The St. Louis Rep has opened a smart, fast-paced, rather serious comedy about the meaning of Truth. It's called The Lifespan of a Fact, and it's by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell. It's based on an actual publishing incident.
A high-toned magazine is preparing to publish an essay about a suicide in Las Vegas. A young man jumped from a high tower to his death. The author, John D'Agata, is an award-winning writer. Almost as an afterthought the Editor in Chief, Emily Penrose, asks a bright young intern, Jim Fingal, to do a fast "fact-check" on the article. "Have it ready by Monday!", she says. To her it's a mere perfunctory demonstration of "due diligence".
But it leads Fingal and D'Agata (their real names) into a seven year battle about just what is "Truth". Fingal (engagingly played by Griffin Osborne) is almost desparately ambitious. He is zealously dedicated to this task, and won't let even the tiniest factual discrepancy pass his notice. (Was the building made of red bricks, as the author claims? No! They were in fact brown.) With no authorization from his boss Fingal goes to Las Vegas to confront D'Agata about the many, many twistings of the facts that he has found.
Brian Slaten plays D'Agata. It's a lovely performance, and beautifully captures a gifted writer who is obsessed with his own gift.
Young Fingal badgers the author incessantly. He spends the first two days picking nits with the very first sentence in the article. (Oops! The author insists that it's not an "article"; it's an "essay".)
D'Agata holds that the "human truth" is more important than the literal facts. Does it really matter precisely how many nude bars there are in Las Vegas? He chooses a number based on his poetic sense. There are in fact 31 such bars, but the writer says there are 34. "One" has just a vowel, but "four" has a lovely diphthong.
He writes that a young woman killed herself on that same day by hanging, when in fact she too had leapt from a building. But D'Agata didn't want to detract from the uniqueness of the suicide at the center of his story. Does it make any difference? Well, perhaps when the father of the young woman reads the essay it will make a difference to him.
D'Agata is a little pompous, and thinks this whole procedure is beneath him. He's far too full of himself. But Fingal, too, is immensely irritating in his frenzied pursuit of the tiniest flaw.
Ms. Penrose, the editor, is strongly played by Perri Gaffney. She's a stressed top-executive who wants to fix any egregious error, but also wants to placate her important author. And it has to be completed now!
The sets are by Arnel Sansianco. After a brief scene in the magazine offices the bulk of the play is set in the writer's home in Las Vegas. Sansianco gives us a nicely detailed, slightly tacky bungalo--probably the home of D'Agata's deceased mother. But the presentation of this set is gross overkill: it sweeps out of nowhere on a motorized platform--to the delight and applause of the audience. It's always a bad sign when the audience applauds a set. (Playwright Robert Anderson once remarked that he'd seen Phantom of the Opera. It was, he said, the first musical where he'd come out whistling the set.) Our Rep has truly wonderful technical capabilities, but just because you can do something doesn't mean that you should. This grand roll-out of the set was a distraction from this story, which in all other aspects is small and intimate.
This dispute between author and fact-checker (with editor as referee) ends with all three characters sitting to read a portion of the essay. It's style is simple Hemmingway, but it moves them all--even Fingal--to tears. Is that what good non-fiction is about nowadays? Making us cry? What about making us think?
Such an ending suggests that each side is justified in its stand--the writer who tells many little lies for the sake of beauty, and the intern who insists on absolute fact. I was reminded of the ending of Inherit the Wind. In that play about the famous "Scopes Monkey Trial" Clarence Darrow, after demolishing fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan, places the Bible and The Origin of Species comfortably together into his briefcase; each, it seems, holds its own truth.
But the two "truths" presented in this play are simply incompatible. In non-fiction a writer who knowingly tells lies about the facts has allied himself with the most noxious propagandists. He should be booted from the guild. If he is truly a gifted writer he will find ways to make real facts compelling.
The Lifespan of a Fact continues at the St. Louis Rep through November 10.
(Photos by Phillip Hamer)