'Lifespan of Fact' at Studio 54: Truth, falsehood, and beyond

1344 The Lifespan of a Fact Pictured L to R Daniel Radcliffe Cherry Jones and Bobby Cannavale Photograph by Peter Cunningham 2018
(Left to right:) Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones, and Bobby Cannavale in "The Lifespan of a Fact" at Studio 54 in Manhattan.

True or false? Fact or fiction? Article or essay? Journalism or literature? Certainty or ambiguity? Clarity or nuance?

The Lifespan of a Fact, now playing at Studio 54 in Manhattan, asks all these painfully pertinent questions. It’s based on a true (?!) story about a famous writer whose essay for a famous magazine headed by a famous editor is fact-checked by a young nobody and found wanting. 

Well, actually, if truth be told, the real-life John D’Agata wasn’t famous at the time of these true events, nor was the magazine he wrote for, but for theatrical purposes (?!) he is now. D’Agata and the real-life fact-checker, Jim Fingal, got into a series of wrangles and arguments that resulted in a jointly authored book. Then three unknown playwrights — Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gorden Farrell — wrote this play, based on the D’Agata/Fingal book. Collaborations beyond imagining.

But rather than too many cooks spoiling the broth, this turns out to be a very tasty soup indeed.

The dream cast delivers: Bobby Cannavale in the role of self-important writer John swaggers and scoffs and glowers as he looms over Daniel Radcliffe, in the role of Jim, the young, nakedly ambitious, relentlessly bumptious, rational, and also self-important fact-checker. Radcliffe provides cutthroat comic timing and an impeccable American accent. Jim has been hired by the editor, played by Cherry Jones. She is as magisterial as ever, as her character navigates between these two male egos and her own two wishes: to make the Monday morning deadline and to publish a fine legacy piece in what may be her last issue.

Directed by Leigh Silverman at high speed through Mimi Lien’s nifty quick-change sets, the sights onstage move from the sleek sterility of the editorial office, to the screen on which we see the exchange of emails, to the old-fashioned, somewhat tacky house John’s mother lived and died in (there’s a story there, too, but who knows what to believe at this point?).

It’s the stories that matter, as any writer will tell you, and finally we want to hear about the Levi Presley who jumped off the roof: “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.” Does it matter if some of the details are fudged for the dramatic effect of the descending numbers? Does honor require accuracy? The Lifespan of a Fact leaves us to ponder these questions having just watched a good story. 

Studio 54, 54th St. at 8th Avenue, New York City.