Expect any review you read of THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT to contain a well-worn phrase that’s too often seen these days:
That’s the topic in the 90-minute drama by three playwrights listed as “Jeremy Kareken & David Murrell and Gordon Farrell.”
Yes, an ampersand links the first two while an article links the last two. What that may mean is anyone’s guess.
A triumvirate was apparently needed to pen a play “based on the Essay/Book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal.”
Yes, again: “Essay/Book” is the way the trio puts it. Were the three unable to decide on one or the other?
One thing is clear: for anyone who cares the least bit about journalism and standards, the very existence of this play will bring about a rage that’s as intense as a forest fire.
For those who believe the media is “the enemy of the people,” this play will convince them that once again, they are never wrong.
When the lights come up, magazine editor-in-chief Emily Penrose (Cherry Jones) is sitting imperiously at her desk barking out instructions. Standing and facing her is a just-out-of-college and very nervous intern. He’s Jim Fingal (Daniel Radcliffe, 12 blocks north of the HARRY POTTER plays.)
Fingal’s assignment, whether or not he cares to accept it, is to fact-check a piece written by well-regarded essayist John D’Agata (Bobby Cannavale). It deals with Levi Presley, a teenager who dramatically committed suicide by jumping from the top of one of Las Vegas’ tallest casinos. Penrose has read the essay and expects it to be “my legacy piece.”
Then Fingal almost immediately finds a factual discrepancy in it … then another … then another. And then the deluge.
Here’s the thing: D’Agata doesn’t give a damn about facts. “Stop thinking!” he commands of Fingal. If youth must be served, D’Agata is ready to serve Fingal on a platter to Penrose. He demands “Fire him!”
For D’Agata truly believes he’s in the right. His only goal was to write a story that’ll draw in readers and bring tears to their eyes.
No, readers deserve both facts and emotional content. Is there even an issue here? Watching D’Agata blatantly admit to changing details will unnerve many – and validate some who have a policy of disbelieving the press. Watch in horror or delight as D’Agata blithely acknowledges that he’s changed words because they’ll mellifluously SOUND better when readers hear them in their heads.
D’Agata’s big rebuttal is that Levi’s mother read the piece and said “This is my son!” That D’Agata captured the spirit and soul of the lad is indeed an accomplishment. Well, bully and congrats, but that’s only half the job. And yet, D’Agata doesn’t mind cutting corners – nay, amputating them.
“I’m an essayist, not a journalist!” D’Agata tells Fingal. No, he’s actually a short story writer. If D’Agata has all this talent, send him into the world of fiction. Let him make Levi Presley into Preston Levi and tell the story he thinks the world would like to read. Under no circumstances, though, should a non-fiction piece contain conjecture and inaccuracies, if not outright lies.
Radcliffe’s eyebrows must be exhausted after every performance. First they shoot up every time he comes upon an inconsistency. They jump even higher when D’Agata gives his “explanations.”
Lieutenant Frank Columbo stayed on TV for 13 seasons by casually asking “Just one more question.” Radcliffe is just as effective in using the same approach. The actor starts out as Sisyphus pushing that boulder up the hill but becomes exponentially bolder because he knows he has right on his side.
Along the way, Fingal gives us an excellent role model. Some claim that young people today don’t care much about what goes on in the world. Fingal proves them wrong in at least this one instance. We can only hope that he can stay true to his principles and not become – well, D’Agata.
Early on, an audience might assume that the frosted-glass wall in Penrose’s office will be all that’s offered all night. No, it disappears and reveals that designer Mimi Lien has whipped up a middle-class-but-with-aspirations apartment. It looks as if an old woman decorated it and indeed one did: D’Agata’s elderly mother whose infirmity has caused her son to come to Las Vegas and attend to her. So he’s not a total bad guy.
Even novice playwrights know that the more sets your script requires, the less your chances of production. So our threesome conveniently have Fingal go to Las Vegas because his friends are getting married there that very weekend. What a coincidence! (And he’s got a Monday deadline in which he absolutely and positively must prove himself?). Later a distraught Penrose, seeing the lack of progress, flies out to join them.
Do you believe that either he or she would?
That the play is doing business may be the result of star-power. When the lights come up on the first scene and reveal Jones and Radcliffe, the audience begins applauding in appreciation. For whom? He? She? Both?
Radcliffe does get top billing and the last bow. Demoting Jones, the three-time Drama Desk, two-time Tony and one-time Emmy winning actress, to second place may seem to be heresy. However, Radcliffe does have the showiest part of the three.
Director Leigh Silverman gives the play an efficient staging. She must be pleased with the great stage picture every time D’Agata and Fingal stand opposite each other and do battle: Cannavale is a good head taller than Radcliffe, and Daniel does seem to be in the lion’s den.
But size doesn’t matter to Radcliffe. Fingal has truth on his side so he can dare to be ferocious. Best of all, the young actor never makes Fingal seem opportunistic with recognition or a genuine staff job as his motivation. He’s been taught to have impeccable journalistic standards and he believes in them.
Perhaps this is the season in which Radcliffe finally gets that Tony nomination that’s eluded him in his three other (fine and accomplished) Broadway appearances. Or will this early-season production be forgotten by May?
Cannavale does well in conveying D’Agata’s laissez-faire attitude. His shoulder-shrugging, no-problem rationalization continues even as he’s painted into a corner by Fingal’s very wide brush. Cannavale conveys what so many kings and politicians have learned within the first weeks of their reigns: act as if nothing’s wrong and there’s no problem and eventually your rival will back down.
Given that Cannavale has previously appeared in seven New York productions, he shouldn’t be making mistakes that are usually reserved for theater rookies. Why hasn’t he learned to wait for the audience to finish laughing before coming in with his line? He errs again after Radcliffe delivers an impassioned speech that gets audience applause; Cannavale barges in with his line before the audience has finished giving its approval.
In D’Agata and Fingal’s “Essay/Book,” the editor-in-chief makes a scant appearance. We’re lucky that the playwrights have greatly expanded her role, for this gives us a chance to see the estimable Cherry Jones on Broadway for the first time in nearly five years.
Watch her barely disguise her exasperation when Fingal matter-of-factly starts ticking off the story’s salacious aspects without thinking to employ a single euphemism.
When matters get increasingly serious, we know that Jones will be up to the task. She’s made a career of playing tough women — Amanda Wingfield, Major Barbara, Mrs. Warren, Mary McCarthy and DOUBT’S Sister Aloysius – so she’s perfect for the hard-bitten editor who bites hard, too.
And yet, we’re surprised to see her play a character that begins to compromise her principles in a way that editors-in-chief routinely don’t. In this moribund era of magazines, Penrose must keep to budget and can’t miss the deadline that the printers’ union has imposed on her. Will this be enough to let the truth slide?
But perhaps the playwrights are suggesting that these days, this is routinely the way of the journalistic world. Their point may be that getting it done is more important than getting it right — and that we’ll just have to get used to it.
If that is the truth, THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT will be Donald Trump’s all-time favorite play. If his ever-trusting, never-doubting base became theatergoers, Kareken & Murrell and Farrell’s farce would run now and forever.