by Michael Bracken
Its clever title is a sign of the times, for sure. And the comedy it describes follows suit without getting mired in statecraft or freedom of the beleaguered press. The Lifespan of a Fact, at Studio 54, is a lively apolitical foray into the world of journalism, where accuracy and art vie for position within the confines of a high gloss piece in a high gloss magazine.
“I don’t write articles,” John tells anyone who dares to so label his work. “I wrote an essay.” Affected? Of course, but only about his writing. As played with brio by Bobby Cannavale, John is a proud graduate of the School of Hard Knocks, at least in his own mind. He’s got plenty of grit, and he’s not above strangling Jim (Daniel Radcliffe) when he feels it’s called for.
Jim is the intern assigned by the magazine to fact check John’s work, no small task given John’s penchant for liberally shaping details to fit the mood or the message of his work. Jim throws himself into the task with abandon, verifying every comma and semicolon. In Radcliffe’s hands, he’s a bit of a nebbish, but he’s more of an earnest, likable guy, trying to do a good job, seeing his task as a terrific opportunity to show editor Emily (Cherry Jones) he has what it takes to be a permanent hire.
Emily becomes the referee in the boxing match – make that wrestling match; boxers don’t strangle – between Jim and John. She learns that Jim has flown out to Las Vegas, where John is based, and flies out to join them. More firm than tough, she’s the least well-defined of the trio, or at least she doesn’t show her cards for all to see the way the boys do. Jones, ever the pro, gives a spirited, convincing performance, endowing Emily with a whiff of enigma. Emily keeps a framed photograph on her desk, facing her chair. Neither visitors nor audience can see what it is.
All three actors are in sync and they’re all fabulous. Of course, playwrights Jeremy Kareken & David Murrell and Gordon Farrell have given them meaty characters and a great script. The writing is deceptive in a very good way. It often seems like the authors are merely scraping the surface for laughs, when they’re also reinforcing the thematic conflict between overall spirit and individual specifics in reportage.
Leigh Silverman’s direction is of the highest order. The production is completely organic. One scene flows into the next naturally and logically.
The Lifespan of a Fact is based on the true (whatever that means) story of the working relationship between John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, as told in the essay book of the same name, authored by the pair. Harper’s Magazine commissioned an essay by John, titled “What Happens There,” about the suicide culture of Las Vegas. Jim was his fact checker.
In this era of fake news and alternative facts, it’s refreshing to be able to laugh at the idea that no matter how hard and fast reality may seem, it’s not immune to a dose of subjectivity.
Photos: Peter Cunningham
Through January 13, 2019, at Studio 54 (254 West 54th Street). https://www.lifespanofafact.com/.
90 minutes with no intermission.