The distance between fudging facts and outright fabrication can be razor-thin, or can stretch to a gaping abyss into which truth, accuracy, and integrity plummet and disappear.
The Lifespan of a Fact (★★★☆☆), an engaging drama by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell, dives right into the abyss in search of what’s true within a soon-to-be-published, nonfiction essay that’s potentially full of fudged facts and fabrications.
Either distinction falls over the line from plain old truth. Capable journalists, historians, and other writers of non-fiction are trusted to know the difference, and to practice something like a code of honor in keeping it real for their readers, who shouldn’t have to fact-check every detail.
The play — making its D.C. premiere in Keegan’s aptly tense, if visually unexciting, production — spins its ideological debate from a cracking contest of wills between a star writer and the fledgling fact checker dispatched to hold the writer’s facts to the fire.
At first glance, fact checker Jim Fingal (Iván Carlo), fresh out of Harvard and interning at a prominent New York magazine, would seem to be easily overmatched in a literary duel with acclaimed writer John D’Agata (Colin Smith). But Jim has truth and virtue on his side to help balance the scales as he parses D’Agata’s latest article — which the author insists on calling an essay.
D’Agata’s editor at the magazine, Emily Penrose (Sheri S. Herren), referees the escalating conflict as Jim uncovers a steady drip of inconsistencies in the essay’s account of real-life events. Lifespan itself derives from the real-life contention between D’Agata and Jim during the fact-checking of an essay D’Agata wrote in 2003 about the death by suicide of a Las Vegas teen.
Improbably, the real-life pair, with the aid of W.W. Norton editor Jill Bialosky, compiled their exchanges and process of edits and corrections into a critically lauded book, published in 2012. The book, just as improbably, was adapted for the stage, and opened on Broadway with Bobby Cannavale as D’Agata, Daniel Radcliffe as Jim Fingal, and Cherry Jones portraying their buffer, Emily.
Frankly, it takes a writer possessed of some self-importance to publish a “blockbuster” essay, and a book retracing the essay’s ethically fraught path to greatness. Smith’s prickly turn as D’Agata captures that sizable ego, packaged in humble jeans and cardigans. The performance also registers the writer’s staunch conviction that taking liberties with the exact truth is a necessary means to achieve exacting prose.
The wrong facts get in the way of a good story, D’Agata declares, by way of explanation, and in his defense. To be sure, he takes his liberties well past what most writers, and most people, might deem acceptable. But his writing moves people.
As Jim, Carlo is appropriately eager, green, and upstanding, and lines up as a worthy prosecutor of D’Agata’s loosely applied standards of truth and accuracy.
The performance doesn’t evince many signs of the ambition that must be somewhere in the Harvard grad’s constitution. He’s prepared to chase down every fact on every line of every page, but Carlo doesn’t indicate he might be stoking at least a slight taste for glory. He’s after truth, and just really wants to please his boss.
Emily instructs Jim to be fast and careful in his fact check, and has to constantly recalibrate for where his fastidious care leads their endeavor. Herren’s Emily supplies steady, no-nonsense boss energy that does help drive the story forward, though her deadpan professionalism tends toward stiffness, flattening some of the comedy.
Tension, too, is deflated in a later scene between Emily and D’Agata by a sense that the writers don’t invest as much interest in what she has to say on the matter at hand. She is, in large part, an audience to Jim and D’Agata’s debate, which proceeds with compelling points made on both sides.
The production, directed by Susan Marie Rhea, seemingly misses an opportunity by not addressing, at least in design or presentation, how this debate has leapt off the page in the years since the book was published. Technology and the ways we use it have made it both easier to find facts and to fabricate them. Future Jim Fingals will have to be a lot faster and far more careful to keep up with a generation of John D’Agatas raised on big lies and assisted by AI.
The Lifespan of a Fact runs through Feb. 26 at The Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. Tickets are $50. Visit www.keegantheatre.com.
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