Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The Lifespan of a Fact
The Lifespan of a Fact, which is based on a true story, brings together both of those issues–the effects of fighting off the impact of the decline in print publications and the desire to alter facts for one's personal gain–into a taut and suspenseful drama that also has many moments of humor. Theatre Artists Studio is presenting the local premiere of the 2018 play with a gifted trio of actors, clear direction, and smart creative elements.
Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell based their play on the 2012 book of the same name, which details a 2003 essay written by John D'Agata that was originally commissioned by Harper's Magazine before they declined to publish it due to the number of falsities it contained. The piece centers on the suicide of a teenager in Las Vegas and the larger impact that suicide has in that gambling-focused city. A fact-checker, Jim Fingal, was later brought on when the literary magazine The Believer finally published the piece in 2010, and the book features D'Agata's essay along with extensive notes and comments that Fingal made during the fact-checking process.
While that book may seem an odd choice for the basis of a stage play, it actually makes for a suspenseful theatrical piece as it focuses solely on the period of five days that begin when Fingal was hired to fact-check the essay, which has already been copy-edited but has been pushed up to be the lead story in the magazine's next issue. As the characters are faced with a fast approaching publication deadline looming over their heads, Fingal butts heads with D'Agata, who believes the specific use of words and the rhythm in the piece is more important than the facts and that the wrong facts can get in the way of the story, while the editor of the magazine, Emily Penrose, attempts to act as referee between the two while making sense of the hundreds of notes, comments, and factual errors Fingal has found in the essay.
Kareken, Murrell and Farrell wisely crafted their drama into a one-act, 95-minute piece that never lets up on the intense battle between facts and fiction; an intermission would have drastically impacted the momentum. Their dialogue is smart and fresh, especially when the nerves of the trio fray and their ongoing negotiations unfold into a back-and-forth match of wits. They also make good use of pieces of D'Agata's essay to show how truths can be slightly altered to make a piece of writing flow better, which helps us better understand where D'Agata is coming from. They also weave in some points about how publications have been stretched thin due to budget cuts (the fact-checking department at Emily's magazine has been eliminated, which is how an intern like Jim gets hired at the last minute for this project) and how they attempt to make good faith efforts to fact-check their articles with their limited personnel, even if it means they'll need to publish a correction later.
Under Richard Powers Hardt's smart, focused, and clear direction, all three members of the cast shine in realistic portrayals. Jacob Nichols is great as the determined and idealistic Jim, always making us question if he is an ambitious overachiever or just a dedicated worker trying to be thorough and do a good job. Tom Koelbel has the perfect laid-back attitude for John D'Agata, an arrogant writer who feels that facts get in the way of the story and who has no problem bullying those around him, especially Jim, whose interrogation he resents. Debra Rich is appropriately matter of fact as Emily, the editor who knows the ongoing demise of printed publications like hers is a fact but believes D'Agata's essay is meaningful and could be her last chance to publish something that matters. While Rich shows us how Emily is sometimes short with Jim, as she's juggling a lot of responsibilities, there are also moments where she projects warmth and care.
All three actors work well together, and the pacing is perfect as things quickly unfold on Powers Hardt's set, which effectively uses every bit of the stage space to depict Emily's office, John's Las Vegas apartment, and various other locales. Stacey Walston's lighting is realistic; the use of projections to depict the various emails exchanged and pieces of the essay work well for a show that is centered on published material.
The Lifespan of a Fact is an intriguing analysis of the importance of fact verses fiction, but it is also extremely relevant in the world we live in today, where the statement "fake news" is continually bandied about and there is constant questioning of the truth in what we hear and read is at hand. When John declares "I'm not interested in accuracy. I'm interested in truth," it will make you question just how factual the articles we read are. But when the three read passages from John's essay toward the end of the show, you also see how this moving, meaningful essay on teenage suicide beautifully captures the death of the young man and the focus on human tragedy, and that perhaps facts aren't as important when compared to ensuring that a life is remembered.
The Lifespan of a Fact runs through February 5, 2023, at Theatre Artists Studio, 4848 East Cactus Road, Scottsdale AZ. For tickets and information visit www.TheStudioPHX.org or call 602-765-0120
Director/ Set & Sound Design: Richard Powers Hardt