Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Palm Springs / Coachella Valley

The Lifespan of a Fact
Desert Ensemble Theatre
Review by Robert Sokol

Also see Robert's recent reviews of Cabaret and What the Constitution Means to Me

John Corr, Christine Tringali Nunes, and Chuck Yates
Photo by Nathan Cox
It was a short span from when political illusionist Kellyanne Conway coined the phrase "alternative facts" in 2017 to the 2018 premiere of The Lifespan of a Fact on Broadway. Unrelated? Who knows. Just asking questions here. The play by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell was adapted from a same-titled collaboration by real-life characters John D'Agata and Jim Fingal published in 2012 in which D'Agata's 2003 essay "What Happens There" was pitted against Fingal's rigorous fact-checking, periodically punctuated by correspondence between the protagonists. In other words, it's all true! Or is it?

Now on stage at Desert Ensemble Theater, Christine Tringali Nunes, Chuck Yates, and John Corr play the roles of publisher Emily Penrose, essayist John D'Agata, and fact-checker Jim Fingal, which were originated by Cherry Jones, Bobby Cannavale, and Daniel Radcliffe on Broadway.

Penrose is a powerful woman used to being in charge and not used to being questioned. A cousin, perhaps, of the Prada-clad Miranda Priestly. She's also a work of fiction, a creative license used by the playwrights to bring the two real characters into dramatic conflict. Unless it was an amazingly subtle (and ill-advised) character choice, Nunes seemed to have a rough time driving the action on opening night. Sleekly clad and power-coiffed, she nonetheless seemed flustered and unsure, particularly when delivering "Just do it!" commands. This might have worked later in transition from a more authoritative stance after her assumptions had been cracked, but not as a through-line.

Annoying. That's the best adjective for the character Fingal. He digs too deep. He notices too much. He can't take a hint and he can't leave well enough alone or resist the urge to make just one more try at getting his point across. He's perfect for the job and you hate him, but you need him–or at least what he does too well. John Corr plays all of this brilliantly, shading it with layers of defensiveness, vulnerability, and moral outrage and courage. There's also an air of quiet, desperate determination that this will be the last time he has to take one of these nowhere jobs.

As written, D'Agata is the essence of privileged white male arrogance, also unused to being questioned, particularly by those he sees as beneath him like women and interns. He's an accomplished writer, an exceptional one if you ask him, so don't bother him with the details like fact checking, and if you must, just fix it but don't change it. Yates is a fine actor but seems miscast for this material.

The opportunity for a power imbalance and inherent conflict between D'Agata and Fingal is minimized by things Yates simply cannot control. First, his voice, which is highly pitched and makes D'Agata sound whiny and peevish rather than arrogant or confidant. Then, his height. Corr, who looks to be a six-footer or more, towers over Yates and this visual diminishes the potential threat level. (This actually creates one of the funniest moments in the play. "I had brothers. I'll bury you," growls Corr, staring down at Yates in a toe-to-toe face-off.)

There's also the issue of age for both actors. Corr feels a tad old for an intern, usually seen as a fresh-scrubbed recent college grad. Yates, with his mane of silver hair, looks just a smidge more than a generation removed from Corr, which shifts the professional competitiveness into more of a dysfunctional family dynamic light.

Jumping from New York to Las Vegas, where, of course, everything that happens is supposed to stay, the three exhaust themselves into an uneasy, deadline-driven collaboration on a final edit of the essay. Will they get to press on time? The play doesn't tell you but there are spoilers online if you look for them.

Cleverly written and oh so timely, The Lifespan of a Fact tortures analyses of right and wrong (as in both correct and just), how much is too much (in both accuracy and artistic license), and whether or not any of that matters and, if so, to whom. It's the "If a tree falls in the forest" argument on steroids and the writers serve up a compelling range of point-counterpoint debate subjects including the coastline of England and the difference between a journalist and an essayist. Heady, in the brainy sense of the word, stuff sends you out of the theatre questioning everything.

The Lifespan of a Fact runs through February 4, 2024, at Desert Ensemble Theatre, Palm Springs Cultural Center, 300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs CA. Remaining performances are Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $37.50. For tickets and information, please visit or call 760-565-2476.