‘The Lifespan of a Fact’ at Theatre NOVA illuminates society’s biggest divider and dilemma
ANN ARBOR, Mich.–In almost every walk of life, and dominated by today’s political discourse, the truth is under severe attack. In The Lifespan of a Fact, now playing at Theatre NOVA, the truth is at the center of a bitter dispute among an essayist, a magazine editor and a young fact checker.
But the real trial of truth in the play, written by Jeremy Kareken & David Murrell and Gordon Farrell, is about issues much bigger than the four-page essay being fact-checked for a magazine.
Jim Fingal (Justin Montgomery) is a young intern at a serious magazine – a magazine like The New Yorker or The Atlantic. He is tasked with fact-checking an essay written by a renown essayist John D’Agata (Andrew Huff) about a young man who committed suicide in Las Vegas by jumping off the roof of the Stratosphere Hotel. Emily Penrose (Diane Hill) is an overly caffeinated magazine editor who is under the gun and tasks Fingal with the job under a tight deadline.
Once our young fact-checker gets to work, though, we learn that his idea of facts differs markedly from the writer’s. While D’Agata is concerned with how the piece reads, and how it sounds on the ear, he plays fast and loose with facts peppered throughout the essay – for example, the number of people who died that day in Las Vegas, the number of strip clubs operating in Vegas the day of the suicide. These are all the things that give the story depth and context. Fingal, though, has a strict definition of “fact” that has him chasing down whether there were 34 or 31 strip clubs operating that day, and whether or not one of the people who died that same day also jumped off a building.
This play was written about a decade after New Republic writer Stephen Glass was found to have invented several remarkable articles for the magazine – spinning the stories out of whole cloth with made-up sources and events. New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was also, around the same time, found to have done the same at America’s most prestigious newspaper. And it came about six years after the launch of Facebook and about the same time that political forces in the country discovered that “content” could be distributed via social media that could “seem” or “feel” like it is factual, though actually it is bullshit engineered to sway people’s opinions and votes by playing to their prejudices.
Huff is very compelling as a Boomer generation essayist D’Agata clinging to what he believes is the license granted to writers like him to massage the small facts of a story to convey a larger truth he is driving at. He frequently gets fed up with Fingal’s super earnest, sticklerish embrace of the job he has been given. Montgomery, meanwhile, thoroughly understands his character’s embrace of the truth being the truth with no gray areas when it comes to journalism, and facts being facts. His contrast to D’Agata’s casual dismissals of details is at the center of the story. In the end, this conflict is about opposing standards and each character’s definition of mankind’s most profound question: what is truth, and what is the right path to arriving at a shared truth.
Diane Hill keeps faith with the character of Penrose painted by the playwrights. While Hill plays the tough, high-strung, editor of the magazine who hopes this essay will be a “legacy piece” for her magazine, the character as written can come off as a bit of a caricature – of the coffee-swilling, “you’ll never eat lunch in this town again” type. She will serve as a referee between the two men, and the end of the play leaves us with a question in her head, rather than an answer. Hill does extremely well at being the bridge between the two male characters, and struggling between the virtues of both of their points of view about the importance of verified facts.
What is important here, though, for what is ultimately a very fast-paced, taut, 90-minute treatment of a major issue confronting society, is that it works. The story works beautifully to turn the lights on for audience members about the importance of facts. Not your facts, and my facts. Just the facts.
Over the past six or seven years, journalists have had to put quotation marks around “facts” and “information” as they right about politics and the pandemic to name two categories. The country is more stridently politically divided than ever precisely because the left and right have their own fact tribes, their own sources of “information.” Social media uses algorithms to send us “sources” and “information” to our newsfeeds based on what we seem to want to read. Each side, but especially the Trump cohort, purposely sends out missives of crapola to bolster a set of falsehoods that are deemed to advance the cause of Trumpism.
In that sense, Facebook and Twitter, to name two, take the nonsense we choose to read and send us more nonsense like it. And so, the beliefs and values people hold become built on one massive pile of bullshit.
That is where the beliefs and values of Fingal give hope. The writers smartly made the guardian of truth and old-school values the young man just starting out in his career.
Carla Milarch directs, and her good work comes through in the quick pacing of the play. Monica Spencer created a clever set, with triangle shaped flats that were turned to shift the scene from a New York magazine office to a the Las Vegas home of D’Agata, as well as a desk that could be turned upside down to create a couch. Xavier Williamson designed lighting and projections that enabled the audience to see the emails careening among the characters. Vince Kelley is costume designer and Sophie Little is sound designer.
To those in the know about Las Vegas and the Stratosphere Hotel, there is a delicious irony in the play. Have the writers of the play ever been to the hotel? If they had, then why does the essay of the young man jumping off the roof not mention at all the fact that there are actual amusement rides – a short rollercoaster that takes people over the edge of the roof, and a vertical ride that blasts occupants up about a 100 feet or so above the roof, and even a bungee experience that allows people to hurl themselves off the side of the hotel for $150.00.
Editor’s Note:The playwrights contacted EncoreMichigan to let us know that while the rides existed on top of The Stratosphere Hotel in 2012 when they debuted the play, they were not on top of the hotel at the time of the suicide about which the play is written. Also, the original review as posted switched the names of the actors and characters…ironic for a review of a play about fact checking. Yes, facts matter.