‘The Lifespan of a Fact’ explores the world of true-ish journalism
From left: Inger Tudor, Ron Bottitta, Jonah Robinson / Jenny Graham

LOS ANGELES — I read a manual on memoir writing where the author made the point that for the sake of a coherent story it really doesn’t matter to anyone, least of all to the reader, whether the sofa on which, 40 years ago, you experienced your first kiss at your neighbors’ house was gray or green. You needn’t be such a perfectionist as to say, “on their gray velour couch (or was it green perhaps? I can’t recall).” Two or three such niggling qualifications and caveats on a page and you can say sayonara to your reader.

But a memoir and Fox News (or The New York Times—or People’s World) have very different functions in society. These all have distinct world views (fascist, neoliberal, socialist, respectively) but are still expected to adhere to at least a minimum standard of veracity. No one cares, and it makes no difference, if the couch was gray or green. But readers well might care if a writer for a prestigious magazine claims, for literary effect or “poetic license,” that on a certain day in Las Vegas a suicide jumping from a building was the only such death, when in fact there was another. And also might care if the suicide was a total invention of the author’s imagination.

How much a writer, even an “essayist” perhaps not so beholden to the strictest journalistic principles of everyday reporting, can bend and toy with the truth is the issue at stake in the three-character play The Lifespan of a Fact, cowritten by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell. It had a successful 2018 run on Broadway in an all-star production featuring Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones and Daniel Radcliffe that The New York Times called “terrifically engaging” in its “Critic’s Pick” review. Now it can be seen in its West Coast premiere at the Fountain Theatre. We saw it on opening night, February 18.

In short, what’s more important: writing the truth, or telling a good story?

“The play urges us to take a harder look at the content we read and the stories we’re told—even from sources we trust,” says Fountain artistic director Stephen Sachs.

Inner Tudor and Jonah Robinson / Jenny Graham

The conceit of the play comes from actual events. High-power New York editor Emily Penrose (Inger Tudor) must decide whether the next issue of her mag will feature a piece on “Congressional Spouses and the Burdens They Bear” (in two words, bor-ing) or a lyrical, interpretative essay on Las Vegas and its discontents, what happens there and how the razzle-dazzle town serves as an emblem of all the angst and misery of today’s America, by the hot, popular, big-name writer John D’Agata (Ron Bottitta), who lives there.

Penrose has worked with D’Agata in the past and knows his byline carries a lot of weight. Appearance of this story in her elite magazine—in this age of declining readership, disinvestment and advertising that’s drifting to other platforms—will change the discourse in America. It will be the conversational fodder over literary brunches, at academic symposia, in boardrooms. “The right story at the right time changes how people see their own lives,” she intones magisterially.

Only problem is, she knows this celebrated writer can sometimes get a date or the spelling of a name wrong. So she casts her net through the staff of her publishing enterprise to find a fact-checker who, between today (Wednesday) and first thing Monday morning, will conscientiously correct the author’s minor slip-ups. The last person who occupied the official house position of fact-checker died four years before and was never replaced.

She finds such an individual in the eager young intern Jim Fingal (Jonah Robinson), a recent Harvard grad, veteran of the university’s Crimson newspaper, and an eager beaver out to prove his worth to the company. Though “Asperger’s” comes to mind in his fanatical tracking down of the literal truth, no clinical diagnosis is needed. He simply will not let any statement D’Agata makes escape his meticulous eye. With all the information available on the Internet these days, it was not so hard, even on the first night reviewing the manuscript, to find certain discrepancies.

The cantankerous D’Agata, however, will brook no criticism of his work, resentfully refusing to admit that any fact-checking of his essay (not an “article!”) is necessary, and especially not by some young nobody. “I’m not beholden to every detail!” And if the sources give contradictory information—are there 31 or 34 strip clubs in town?—D’Agata says, “I picked 34 because I like the rhythm.” To Jim, this sounds downright “anarchic.”

So we have three prima donnas (yes, of course that includes men), each protecting their own status, name, pride, rights, and all at odds with each other. It makes for crisp, sparkling drama as each person questions who the other two are in the larger scheme of the world.

The play itself is actually based on a critically well-received nonfiction book by the same name about this famous literary imbroglio, written in documentary style by D’Agata and Fingal themselves as a case study in the ongoing battle between “facts” (and how we understand them) and “truth,” that is, the larger contextual meaning of what happened. It was named “Best of the Year” nonfiction book by the Huffington Post. The very layout of the volume, published by W.W. Norton in 2012, is Talmudic in nature, comparing the early draft, the final version, and the back-and-forth arguments and compromises between author and fact-checker.

“What I love about this play is that it’s based on a true story, and that it tackles the concepts of ‘fact’ and ‘truth’ in a theatrical context through three wonderfully contrasting, funny and compulsive/obsessive characters,” says director Simon Levy.

Or as D’Agata says, “The wrong facts get in the way of the story.” Jim has compiled a 130-page spreadsheet of challenges to the author’s 15-page essay.

The background to this story is public knowledge, so I hope it is not too much of a spoiler to recall that Harper’s magazine was the intended original publisher, which finally turned it down. Only years later did the essay appear in a much smaller publication, the Believer, and then anthologized in D’Agata’s book About a Mountain. These details are not in the play, however, which ends ambiguously on Monday morning just as the presses need to start rolling.

Inger Tudor is suitably imperious as the magazine’s commander-in-chief, preoccupied with her incoming messages and phone calls, and all-knowingly putting down her lowly intern. She bristles whenever anyone tries probing into her personal history. What’s with the mysterious photograph on her desk? Don’t ask. In her manner of controlling the big picture that involves ideas, the publishing market and sales, and overlooking Jim’s emotional investment in what she believed to be his entry-level assignment, she can seem haughty and dismissive.

The boyish Jonah Robinson is a joy to watch on stage as he splays out all his meticulous research into what happened that day in Vegas. We hear about his career on the Harvard newspaper, but not much about where he’s from, what kind of family he has, how he grew up.

Jonah Robinson and Ron Bottitta / Jenny Graham

Bottitta is the seething, angry D’Agata, enraged to be contested on his own ground. He defends his poor, working-class origins as giving him more insight into the human, and the American condition than a mere fact-checker or an academic in pursuit of “accuracy” will ever have. He, too, guards his inner life. And can we believe that as a suicide hotline counselor he actually spoke with the young man earlier that day, or is that another of his literary flourishes?

As is expected from a Fountain production, the small stage is quite enough to more than adequately convey three distinct settings (scenic design by Joel Daavid). A prominent feature of Penrose’s executive office are word-salad collages highlighting SUCCESS, ADVERTISING, STYLE, FACTS, TRUTH, PERSPECTIVE, LABEL, ART, CREATIVE, among many others, suggesting what the magazine’s priorities are. We also peek into Jim’s New York City studio apartment and the author’s ranch-style home in Las Vegas, with the Stratosphere, from which the young man jumped to his death, visible in the distance.

The audience is simultaneously entertained by these hilariously wry characters, and mentally prodded by their intellectual predicament. In our era not merely of “truthiness” but of outright lies purveyed in our media and by elected leaders of our country, The Lifespan of a Fact could hardly be more timely. The Fountain has struck gold once again. Don’t miss it.

The creative team also includes lighting designer Alison Brummer, sound designer Marc Antonio Pritchett, costume designer Michael Mullen, video designer Nicholas Santiago, and properties designer Joyce Hutter. The production stage manager is Hannah Raymond. Stephen Sachs and James Bennett produce for the Fountain Theatre.

The Lifespan of a Fact is an 80-minute show with no intermission. It runs through April 2, with performances on Fri. and Sat. at 8 p.m., Sun. at 2 p.m., and Mon. at 8 p.m. (dark March 13). Pay-What-You-Want seating is available every Mon. night in addition to regular seating (subject to availability). The Fountain Theatre is located at 5060 Fountain Ave. (at Normandie) in Los Angeles. Secure, on-site parking is available for $5. If parking on the street, give yourself plenty of time to find a space. The Fountain is wheelchair accessible. Patrons are invited to relax before and after the show at the Fountain’s indoor/outdoor upstairs café.

A promotional video for the play can be viewed here. A behind-the-scenes video can be seen here. For reservations and information, call (323) 663-1525 or go to www.FountainTheatre.com.

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.