Note: I saw The Lifespan of a Fact in previews. The show is slated to open tonight.
One of the signs of a good play is when it makes you think. One of the signs of a great play is one that makes you change the way you think. I would consider The Lifespan of a Fact, now playing at Studio 54, a great play. I was in the audience weeks ago and I still find myself wondering what I would have done in the situation the three characters were put into.
The Lifespan of a Fact centers around three characters: John D’Agata the author, Jim Fingal, the intern-turned-fact-checker, and Emily Penrose, the editor. The story is based on the book of the same name that was published in 2012, which detailed a seven-year battle between Fingal and D’Agata. In 2003, John D’Agata had written an essay that was accepted for publication by a magazine that could have really used the publicity at the time. Emily just wanted to run his essay by a fact-checker first. Fingal leapt at the challenge and set off a debate between journalistic integrity and the importance of storytelling.
Cherry Jones steps into the role of Emily Penrose in this play. She plays the increasingly frustrated magazine editor in a way that is surprisingly relatable. She seems to always be on the same page as the audience: not entirely sure what to make of the situation that has been put in front of her. From a business standpoint it makes sense for her to run the story as it will give the magazine much needed traction. However, as an editor of a respected publication, she struggled with having her journalistic integrity hanging in the balance. Jones gives the audience a performance that is both believable and vastly important.
D’Agata is played by Bobby Cannavale, who gives a riveting performance as the off-kilter literary nonfiction author. Cannavale has such a presence on stage that it is hard not to hang onto every word that comes from his mouth. His portrayal of D’Agata is attention-grabbing at the very least. The way his frustration with the character of Fingal escalates in every scene is such a roller coaster type of manner that I never wanted the ride to end.
Daniel Radcliffe’s Jim Fingal starts off as a too-eager-for-his-own-good intern who’s ready to take on more responsibility, but once he is given the task of fact-checking D’Agata’s essay, he is transformed into an aggressively meticulous journalist. The lengths he went through to make sure every paragraph, line and word was truthful walked the line between impressive and aggravating in a way that was enticing to watch.
The three actors in this play, although playing real people, also serve as a compass that guides the audience through the story. Radcliffe oozes passion for the truth, the very core of journalistic standards, while Cannavale fights for his right to tell his story the way he feels in his gut it should be told, which is how every writer should feel about each piece they write. Then we have Jones caught between both north and south, the arrow trying to figure out which direction to point her magazine, and those of us in the theater, towards.
The Lifespan of a Fact is a play based on an event that happened back in 2003, but the story feels very current. We are at this point in time where “fake news” and clickbait articles rule the news cycle, and it is getting harder and harder to find the facts under all of the congestion. This show should keep every theatregoer on their toes and provide them with a new perspective they may not have received otherwise, and it does so spectacularly. I credit the playwrights, Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell for their exemplary adaptation of the D’Agata and Fingal story. Leigh Silverman’s outstanding direction brought this entire production together to form a cohesive and powerfully important story.
As a (albeit self-proclaimed) journalist, I found myself more than enthralled with The Lifespan of a Fact. I found my eyes locked on every movement and my ears hung on every sound. I cannot remember the last time I was so focused on a piece of theatre. I was invested emotionally and curiously, eager to find out how the story would end. I was not disappointed. This riveting play starts a conversation that I hope we continue to have even after the curtains have closed.
The Lifespan of a Fact opened October 18, 2018 at Studio 54. The 16 week engagement ends January 13, 2019. Tickets and information about the show can be found here.
Photo Credit: Peter Cunningham, Broadway.com