Play questions the relationship between style and substance in news
If you get the facts wrong, can you still tell the truth? Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell’s “The Lifespan of a Fact” wrestles with that question in the latest Asolo Rep production.
John D’Agata (Gene Weygandt) submits an essay to an unnamed glossy magazine based in New York City.
(Think “Harpers” or “The New Yorker”). His essay revolves around a young man’s suicidal leap from the Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas. The story is heartbreaking; the prose is poetic and shattering. But it still needs to be fact-checked in only five days. D’Agata sent the copy on Wednesday. The presses roll on Monday, and it’s the lead story.
The hard-pressed editor Emily (Tracy Michelle Arnold) hands off the draft to Jim Fingal (Derek Speedy), a nerdy young intern. He starts pulling at the threads of different facts and the essay unravels like an old sweater.
Are the bricks below the tower brown or red?
Did it take him nine seconds to fall?
The obsessive intern compiles a 130-page spreadsheet of errors, guesses, misattributions, confabulations, fibs, and fables.
Jim bugs the writer on the phone—then shows up at his doorstep in Las Vegas. Emily shows up too—and saves Jim from strangulation by the irate author. A Socratic dialog ensues on the limits of poetic license.
D’Agato thinks like a storyteller. He’s not a flat-out liar like Stephen Glass. The core story is true, but he tweaked a few details for tone and rhythm. What color were the bricks? Who cares? As D’Agato sees it, the facts are irrelevant to the meat of the story. Jim thinks like a journalist. Facts are facts. Full stop.
Their debate is far from academic. The presses are ready to roll and Emily has a decision to make. She either spikes the story and substitutes fluff. Or runs it with a few begrudging corrections …
Director Celine Rosenthal goes for the laughs. The bulk of the play comes off as a contemporary screwball comedy.
Weygandt’s author is sitting pretty on a high horse. D’Agato knows he’s good, and resents being questioned by some punk intern. Weygandt’s portrayal walks a fine line between gravitas and irritability. Speedy’s Jim claims to be a disinterested truth crusader—but he clearly wants to knock the big name author off his saddle. A great comic performance, that stops short of caricature. Arnold’s Emily shows grace under pressure. She’s staring a double-barreled deadline in the face—but resists the temptation to simply can Jim and humor the author. She tries to do the right thing, not the easy thing.
Brian Prather’s set design shifts from the minimal magazine office to the author’s shabby ranch house. Projections create a sense of a floating world of ephemeral communications bouncing around in cyberspace. Jen Caprio’s costumes hilariously capture the indifferent fashion sense of writers and editors. Words are all that count, so who needs a dress code?
The play’s truth vs. beauty debate is funny, fascinating and never dumbed down. The tone isn’t serious; the discussion is dead-serious. Nothing less than the uneasy future of American publishing is at stake.
Now, you’re probably wondering what the editor finally decides. Does she kill the essay or run it?
The playwrights punt the question. Toward the end, the play shifts focus from granular fact-checking to the story itself. The actors speak snippets of the young man’s tragedy in D’Agato’s beautiful, moving words. Should those words be changed? You decide.
The real-life war of the words was far more complicated. (You can read all about it in D’Agato and Fingal’s original book.) To fit the facts in an 80-minute, one-act play, the trio of playwrights compressed events, narrowed it down to one magazine and invented the editor character. But give them a pass. It’s a fictionalized account, and the authors don’t pretend otherwise. To state an obvious fact …
Real journalists don’t have that luxury.