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by | May 3, 2024 | Review | 0 comments

Director Jennifer Clement’s production of The Lifespan of a Fact is so assured, so physically handsome and well acted, that I almost didn’t care that the script isn’t as smart as it would have you believe.

Set in New York and Las Vegas, The Lifespan of a Fact is about truth and art in journalism — although one of the three characters, a writer named John D’Agata, would disagree that it’s about journalism: he regards himself as an essayist and uses that as an excuse to play fast and loose with verifiable reality. John has written a piece about the suicide, in Las Vegas, of a 17-year-old boy named Levi Presley who leapt to his death from the top of the Stratosphere Hotel.

Emily Penrose, the editor of a prestigious but unnamed magazine based in New York, is in awe of John’s piece. Because she wants to rush it to print, she enlists the services of an untested young intern named Jim Fingal to fact check it as a quick job over the course of a weekend. Working with John’s 15-page text — and seeing this as an opportunity to prove himself — Jim comes up with 130 pages of notes, in which he accuses John of making a lot of stuff up.

Here’s the kicker: John D’Agata and Jim Fingal are real people. In 2003, Harper’s commissioned D’Agata to write about Presley, but rejected his work because of factual inconsistencies. When The Believer magazine offered to publish the piece, Fingal was brought on board and the ensuing fact-checking process went on until 2010. Two years later, D’Agata and Fingal published The Lifespan of a Fact, the book about their process that’s the basis of this play.

In the theatricalized story, the playwriting team of Jeremy Karaken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell have upped the stakes, compressing seven years of editing into a few days. And I don’t know if this is an exaggeration or not, but they’ve given both John and Jim extreme — and largely unsupportable — positions.

Insisting that he’s an artist and that art matters more than truth, even when you’re dealing with the lives of real people, John says ridiculous things: his basic argument is that, when it comes to the service of (his version of poetic) Truth, facts can get in the way. I don’t care if you think you’re Hunter S. Thompson, that’s nonsense. Yes, the rhythms of sentences and the textures of words are important, but you can also find poetry in objective reality — and, as a journalist, which D’Agata is, whether he likes it or not, that’s your job.

Jim’s reverence for facts is much more supportable, but he’s a pedant, insisting, for instance, that John say that Levi spent eight seconds falling, which is in the coroner’s report, as opposed to nine seconds, which is John’s preference — and what Levi’s parents told him.

Because both men’s positions are so unyielding — and so obviously flawed — it’s hard to deeply engage with their arguments. And, if you’re thinking, “Yes, but in this age of alternative facts, this discussion is important,” I would say sort of. The Lifespan of a Fact isn’t about politically motivated disinformation and fabricated conspiracy theories: the play is about smaller deviations from the truth — for artistic purposes — and that’s a substantially different, though not entirely unrelated conversation.

I’ve also got to say — emphatically — that I was never bored.

The script is witty in many ways. A lot of the play’s comedy arises from games of status. Jim, the intern, tries to impress Emily with his experience on The Harvard Crimson, the elite school’s newspaper, but Emily responds with a level of sangfroid that could outlast global warming. And there are flat-out good jokes. When Emily arrives in Las Vegas — where Jim has flown to consult with John in person — and finds John physically assaulting the younger man, she tells Jim to “Go into another room while I calm down Norman Mailer.”

The actors in this production know exactly what they’re doing.

In some ways, the role of Jim is the plum assignment here — Daniel Radcliffe recently played the part on Broadway — and Tal Shulman makes the most of it, scrambling around like a border collie puppy trying to please its owners. But, when Jim is pushed and disrespected, the passion comes out: he bites back, so to speak. Always emotionally and intellectually alert, Shulman finds a multitude of colours in the character.

And Ben Immanuel slides effortlessly into the role of John, the writer, easily accessing the slow burn, the arrogance, the frustration, and the underlying sorrow of a guy who grew up rough. As an actor, Immanuel’s big gifts are understatement and authenticity. He exercises both here.

Playing Emily, who must act as peacemaker while asserting her authority, Loretta Walsh finds an interesting combination of hauteur, guardedness, and vulnerability. Emily is the character and Walsh’s is the performance that leads the evening into its most moving sequence, in which all three figures viscerally register the tragedy of a young boy’s death.

With its elegant planes of blond plywood, Peter Wilds’s set is as handsome as can be and Emily Trepannier’s subtle lighting is often a welcome bath of gentleness.

I wasn’t particularly engaged by the play’s central dialectic. But I was engaged by its wit, its heart, and the many successes of this production.

THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT by Jeremy Karaken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell, based on the book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. Directed by Jennifer Clement. On Thursday, May 2. A Kindred Theatre Society production at Studio 16 until May 12. Tickets and information

PHOTO CREDIT: (Ben Immanuel, Loretta Walsh, and Tal Shulman: photo by Shimon Karmel)


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Copyright ©2024 Colin Thomas. All rights reserved.