These are facts: John D’Agata is self-important essayist who lives in Las Vegas and has written a compelling essay about a teen’s suicide there for an unnamed but Manhattan-based magazine with enough history to have 52 years of autographed covers hanging on an editor’s office wall. Jim Fingal is the fact-checker who volunteers to check the lengthy piece on a quick, five-day turnaround and becomes so neurotically obsessed with the project that he flies to Vegas on his own to do his research and check in with D’Agata. Also, their editor, a mysterious woman of a certain age, both handles the line-editing of the essay and has sufficient authority within the organization to keep the printing plant on hold for a final decision on whether to slot in D’Agata’s story or the backup, on congressional spouses. She can order union overtime.
This is another set of facts: John D’Agata is a self-important essayist who lives in Iowa City, where he directs the graduate nonfiction program at the Iowa Writers Workshop. He wrote an essay about a teen’s suicide in Las Vegas that was rejected by Harper’s Magazine for accuracy issues, at which point he shopped it to The Believer, a magazine founded in 2003 and then based in San Francisco. Jim Fingal is the intern assigned to fact-check the essay, who begins an epic seven-year face-off with D’Agata about details in the piece and also the nature of truth. It was published in the January 2010 issue of The Believer, with some facts corrected and some conjectures left, as they say in the fact-checking trade, on author.
The first version is the factual story as presented in The Lifespan of a Fact, the frustratingly empty play about D’Agata and Fingal’s battle over truth and accuracy that opened tonight at Studio 54 with a starry, excellent cast. The second is the actual facts of the story, as presented in D’Agata and Fingal’s insightful and charming book of the same name about their checking odyssey (and in news accounts).
Disclosure: I am a former magazine fact-checker.
The Lifespan of a Fact is presented as an urgent and timely examination of facts and accuracy, of how we can know what we think we know and what obligations nonfiction does or does not have to both mundane details and fundamental truths. But it knows its answers before it begins: For the sake of a brisk 85 minutes, the play changes the details of its story as needed. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that in a truth-based plan; few would want to watch Lin-Manuel Miranda reading from Ron Chernow live on stage. But in this case, it not only undermines the play’s fundamental conceit, it also renders the drama less compelling. The play can’t help feeling a bit ersatz, when its magazine seems unfamiliar with the concept of fact-checking, when its author comes off as such a pompous blowhard, and when its checker is turned into a unbalanced nutjob.
This is not to say that the play is unenjoyable, especially as stylishly directed by Leigh Silverman. Daniel Radcliffe continues to prove himself an excellent stage actor, giving credibility to even this manically obsessed version of Fingal (and in entirely successful American accent, no less). Bobby Cannavale’s macho world-weariness as D’Agata makes a fine foil for the hysteria of Radcliffe’s Fingal, even if his characterization shows none of the charm that comes across in D’Agata’s written replies to Fingal in the book. Cherry Jones, as the editor with all the exasperated answers, plays a character with all of her usual steely resolve, even if the actor feels underused in a part that’s so passive. (Even in the end, and unlike in real life, this editor never makes her decision. You might say she has doubts.)
The script is credited to Jeremy Karekan, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell, the first two names separated in the Playbill by an ampersand and the latter two by an “and,” suggesting multiple arrangements of writers working on multiple drafts. In any case, none of them is much known on Broadway, and none has cracked this nut. It’s not necessarily an easy one, as fact-checking is inherently undramatic.
They’re also hindered by timing: D’Agata and Fingal’s years-long face-off was resolved by 2010, before fake news, before Russian Twitter bots, before even GamerGate, which was the Spanish Civil War to the World War II of online misinformation and harassment campaigns surfaced during the 2016 presidential election. In other words, everything that makes this debate about how far nonfiction writers can fudge the facts in service of larger truths, and how much they destroy their credibility by so doing, happened after the action in the play. Radcliffe gets a brief speech to this end late in the play, but the elephant in the room (or the Fancy Bear, as the case may be) is that the elephant hasn’t yet come into the room.
The book The Lifespan of a Fact is a charming and engaging meditation on the craft of writing and the ultimate inscrutability of knowledge. The play The Lifespan of a Fact is an amusing evening at the theater.