I took a former fact-checker to see The Lifespan of a Fact on Broadway. Not in the name of some anthropological experiment; she’s my frequent plus-one. Still, I knew she’d have a few things to say about the veracity of a play that centered on fact-checker Jim (Daniel Radcliffe), essayist John (Bobby Cannavale), and editor Emily (Cherry Jones) wrangling over truths, half-truths, and teeny-tiny details such as red bricks versus brown bricks. The first thing she said on the way out? “There’s no way the editor could’ve run that story.”
Fact-checking is a dying art—much like copy editing. (In fact, they’re often lumped together. These days, publications that can afford such luxuries often rely on copy editors to do basic fact-checking. If you’re lucky enough to work with one of those double-threat dynamos, send them flowers.) That’s why Emily is forced to email her entire edit staff asking for volunteers to check John’s essay, luring them with the promise of a shiny pack of red pens. “There’s no fact-checking department per se since the restructure,” she tells the egomaniacal John, who’s ticked off that anyone—especially this intern Jim—has the stones to question a word of his precious prose. “We flattened the management tree, re-engineered everyone towards a streamlined and actionable editorial process, so all new hires in editorial also train to be fact checkers.” We feel you, Emily.
As a play, Lifespan isn’t much more substantial than the paper your Playbill is printed on. It’s really just a fact-checker and a writer arguing, tennis match–style, about the semantics of a magazine story: the tale of a teenager who committed suicide in Las Vegas. How it took three playwrights, Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell—working from the book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal (the guys portrayed by Cannavale and Radcliffe)—is anyone’s guess. But it makes for a weirdly compelling 95 minutes.
Though he’s still best known for the Harry Potter film franchise, Radcliffe, over the past decade, has proved himself to be a terrific stage actor, and he’s only getting better with each outing. (He’s already been unjustly robbed of two Tony nominations: for 2011’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying—What did he have to do, backflips? Oh wait, he did!—and for 2014’s The Cripple of Inishmaan.) Cannavale turns in another spectacular portrait of a tortured underdog—all bluster and brawn, and brilliant. And Jones is, of course, flawless in a thankless role. But that’s just in the job description; editors never get the glory.
“I’m not interested in accuracy,” John tells Emily. “I’m interested in truth.” The truth is: Our country is obsessed with accuracy. Or at least what passes for accuracy. We’re living in an age when The Washington Post has a feature called the Fact Checker, which uses a Pinocchio rating scale to grade statements and speeches. That’s why we’re sitting here watching John and Jim almost come to blows over sentences like these: “On that day in Las Vegas when Levi Presley died, five others died from two types of cancer, four from heart attacks, three because of strokes. It was a day of two suicides by gunshot as well as a suicide from hanging.”
John looks at those words and sees poetry. Beauty. Jim looks at them and sees inaccuracies. Flaws. What John calls liberties Jim calls liabilities. Just because John needs Levi to fall for nine seconds—for the sake of his essay, to “make some of the other themes work”—doesn’t mean he did. He fell for eight, according to the coroner’s report.
“By changing paint colors and statistics,” Jim sighs, “by misrepresenting official and searchable documents, you undermine your argument, you undermine society’s trust in itself. Which is why facts have to be the final measure of the truth.”
Even today, five days after the show, my former fact-checker friend is hung up on John’s very loose definition of the truth. “All those little liberties still irk me!” And yes, I checked that quote with her.
The Lifespan of a Fact opened Oct. 18, 2018, and runs through Jan. 13, 2019, at Studio 54. Tickets and information: lifespanofafact.com