WHAT "The Lifespan of a Fact"
WHERE Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St. Manhattan
INFO Tickets, from $59, telecharge.com, 212-239-6200
BOTTOM LINE An engrossing, entertaining look at the distinction between fact and fiction.
Fact checkers — copy editors in newspaper parlance — have saved me from dumb mistakes more times than I care to acknowledge. And, yeah, sometimes there are disagreements, but never as prolonged or contentious as they become in "The Lifespan of a Fact," the engrossing new play getting its world premiere at Studio 54.
"Fact," by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell, is based on — well — fact. It's a theatrical staging of the 2012 book (same title) describing the multiyear war of words between respected writer John D'Agata and Jim Fingal, an intern at The Believer magazine over the accuracy of an article (or essay, the distinction is critical) about the 2002 suicide of 16-year-old Levi Presley, who jumped off the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas.
It's hard to imagine this kind of literary contretemps as engaging drama, but in the hands of director Leigh Silverman and her impeccable cast, it becomes a timely — and entertaining — 85-minute discourse on the nature of what is correct and what is "truth." Daniel Radcliffe, his Harry Potter days long gone, returns to the New York stage as the determined but out of his league Fingal, locking horns with D'Agata (Bobby Cannavale), playing the pompous author to the hilt from the start. The always pitch-perfect Cherry Jones is Emily, the fictional editor who bears the burden of dealing with these increasingly manic characters.
Fingal finds problems with the piece in the first sentence — D'Agata writes about 34 strip clubs in Las Vegas instead of the correct 31 because he prefers the rhythm — and it goes on from there, ending up with a 130-page spreadsheet detailing his questions on the 15-page article. D'Agata wastes no time arguing Fingal's attempts to correct. "The essay is fine," he emails. "Thanks for your help."
When Emily is forced to referee (an accurate description, physically and theoretically), things get murky, and the audience begins to understand the complicated issues at play as she ponders whether to print the article. Is it OK to take a second off the time it took Levi to fall because of D'Agata's penchant for the number 9? Maybe. But changing another suicide by jumping to hanging because D'Agata wanted Levi's death to be special? Not so much.
The play offers no conclusion, though it's easy enough to Google what actually happened. If nothing else, in these days of information overload and questions of fake news arising from the highest levels of government, this work offers valuable information on the process as it should be — at least in the eyes of those who consider themselves journalists.