Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The Lifespan of a Fact
But it's a certifiable comedy, as directed by Meredith McDonough, reaching its own kind of heights through a combination of homemade courtroom drama and The Odd Couple. The play, which ran on Broadway in the 2018-19 season, pits two very literate men against each other, over the unlikely subject of proofreading. It's funny, hammering away at the difference between literal truth and the literary kind, considering that whole religions have spent thousands of years trying to split the difference. But The Lifespan of a Fact achieves the same soulful, transcendent results in just 82 minutes flat. Once again (to paraphrase Garrison Keillor, who was speaking of public radio), theater is like church for people who don't like going to church.
We could go on and on about how the "falling man" is like the "fallen man." But it wouldn't be nearly as much strange fun as this play, based on the book by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal. In this local premier, Griffin Osborne plays Jim Fingal, the youthful fact-checker at a modern magazine who must verify the all the dates and nouns (and, just for fun, the adjectives, too) jammed into a highly evocative essay written by temperamental writer John D'Agata, played by Brian Slaten. Perri Gaffney is elegantly ruffled as Emily Penrose, the magazine editor (for Harper's Magazine) who's caught in the middle. And it's all thrashed out against a publishing deadline that looms like a cliff.
A gruesome self-sacrifice lies at the center of it all, artfully singled out by John, in a piece of writing originally titled "What Happens There": a sixteen-year-old who may have spoken to John minutes before, by way of a suicide-prevention hotline, has climbed over a protective barrier at the top of a tower and thrown himself off over the Las Vegas strip at just past sundown. And in that moment, facts and theories become meaningless. The one act play barely touches on the higher-than-usual rate of suicide in Las Vegas, but more notably drives us to the hushed limits of reason by the show's curtain. No one can fully understand those final personal moments, and that's what steals the meaning of it for suicide's survivors. As far as modern drama goes, this play is brief and relatively hard-hitting. But it's also unexpectedly life-affirming.
The other impressive thing is that it's hard to like any of the three characters on stage, at first. The big mechanical set by Arnel Sancianco gets more love from the audience in the first half-hour than the actors. It swallows and disgorges furniture and one whole apartment, just like the publishing industry does with charmingly worded ideas. But publishing in the modern age is like some gangster trapped in a desperate shootout with all the free content on the internet, and nobody's about to give an inch. In the desperate crossfire, the strange miracle of these performers (and this director) is that you end up liking them all very much.
Maybe it helps to loathe the editing process. But the insistent moral anguish that comes with having to question every word, negating the tragedy at hand, develops its own murderous weight, in a personal rumination made all too public.
The Lifespan of a Fact runs through November 10, 2019, at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts, 110 Edgar Road, St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, visit www.repstl.org.
Cast (in speaking order):