Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 18, 2018
The Lifespan of a Fact by Jeremy Kareken & David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell. Based on the Essay/Book by John DAgata and Jim Fingal. Directed by Leigh Silverman. Scenic design by Mimi Lien. Costume design by Linda Cho. Lighting design by Jen Schriever. Original music and sound design by Palmer Hefferan. Projection design by Lucy Mackinnon. Hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones, and Bobby Cannavale.
If you have read through the sentence, you will have noticed it is full of specific details and that it also carefully establishes an audience-grabbing tone, rather like the start of a short story or a novel. The problem is, it is supposed to be a piece of non-fiction. Yet every fact it incorporates is suspect, at least in the eyes of a hot-to-trot young intern named Jim Fingal (a magnificently nerdy and single-minded portrayal by Daniel Radcliffe), eager to make a name for himself at the upscale Manhattan-based magazine where the article in question is about to be published.
Or, rather, make that the "essay," as its self-important author, John D'Agata (Bobby Cannavale), insists it be called. Doing so, he argues, gives him license to embellish; deference to TRUTH is far more important than such mundane things as the literal truth.
That is John's reputation, and that is why the magazine's editor-in-chief, Emily Penrose (Cherry Jones), has asked Jim to fact-check the piece before she releases it for publication. As an aside, Emily mentions the magazine has done away with its fact-checking department, which also explains why the tedious task is being handed down to the new kid on the block. Besides, the eager beaver young man comes to the job with a dual degree in computer science and journalism from Harvard. He even wrote a few stories and editorials for The Crimson. Solid enough credentials. What possibly could go wrong during the four days he has been given to review the 15-page essay?
The overall premise may sound flimsy and exaggerated beyond the plausible, yet, surprisingly, (a) it is drawn from an actual experience involving the real John D'Agata and the real Jim Fingal (writers Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell have shaped it into the play we see), and (b) it is so splendidly performed by three outstanding actors that you can accept the quasi-logical explanations for such things as to why Emily doesn't just fire Jim when things get out of hand, or why she prizes the article/essay so highly that she is willing to put up with the two out-of-control men and serve as the referee and arbitrator between them. Regardless, the interplay among Radcliffe, Jones, and Cannavale is simply a joy to watch.
The 90-minute production whizzes by under Leigh Silverman's direction, and the soft-sell but effective set design by Mimi Lien and the witty projections by Lucy Mackinnon help to keep the plates smoothly spinning. Between the performances and the production elements, you get a sense of egoless collaboration throughout. It's funny, clever, and thought-provoking all at once, a lovely blend of sitcom (the spritely, smart kind), farce, and a serious consideration of journalistic integrity that sometimes borders on an epistemological debate over the nature and purpose of storytelling. What's the last play you saw that could manage all of that?