By Tulis McCall
It is the recent past, let’s say within the last decade, and Emily Penrose, (Cherry Jones) who is editor of an unnamed magazine that needs a leg up, is eager to publish a story by John D’Agata (Bobby Cannavale). The story is beautifully written, and touches on a very sensitive subject, the suicide of a young man who jumped off of the 1,149-foot tower of the Stratosphere hotel in Vegas. Before Penrose pulls the trigger on the piece, however, she wants to be certain-certain-certain that the facts in the story are correct. Penrose knows D’Agata and his relationship with facts. It is tenuous. D’Agata is an essayist for who doesn’t let facts trip up good writing.
Penrose puts out a call for a fact checker who will be willing to give up his weekend and deliver a report that satisfies her by first thing Monday morning when the production facility in Kankakee, Illinois will be checking in for permission to publish. Enter Jim Fingal (Daniel Radcliffe) who is eager to please and a bit of an obsessive sort. No fact will go unturned, starting with the very first sentence, which mentions not only the suicide, but lap dancing. a bottle of Tabasco sauce, and a chicken who played board games.
Welcome to The Lifespan Of A Fact. In this case it doesn’t last long, ye olde lifespan. Facts are crumbling left and right while we watch. Instead of grasping the larger picture, a la D’Agata, Fingal examines each individual brick and its layer of mortar. He was given a task and by golly he is going to complete his assigned task or die trying – an out come to which D’Agata is less and less opposed as time goes by.
Fingal is blind to objections in his pursuit of the facts. Nothing that Penrose or D’Agata can do will stop him. He is a dog with a bone who thinks nothing of tracking D’Agata down to question him in person. Hence the conflict – what value is the truth when set against good writing. When cornered, D’Agata cites Plutarch, Herodotus and Cicero, who, supposedly, examined the role of fact in art centuries ago. Who knows if they did? It sounds good. This is only one of the arrows in D’Agata’s quiver. His main point is that the parents of the boy who killed himself agreed that the essay sounded like who their son was.
Fingal does not move off of his pedestal one inch. Facts are facts. There can be no grey area.
So which person is right, we are asked. The one on this side of the fence in favor of fact, or the one on that side of the fence in favor of story. Which lifespan is the one on which we should focus?
It is left to Penrose, who is the Oreo filling in this cookie, to make the decision. She is Queen Solomon who never makes it to the “let’s cut the baby in half” part.
This is a comedy in so many ways, and Radcliffe in particular is up to the task with Cannavale not far behind. In addition there are a few intimate scenes that let us in on the closets these characters keep stocked with secrets and intrigue. These could be caricatures, but the authors avoid that trap. The veneers are peeled away until these three are left with only belief and the willingness to defend theirs.
While setting out with excellent intention, the play runs off the rails about half way in. Fingal’s fact checking begins with the first sentence of the essay, makes it to the second and then falls into a monotonous tempo. There is no crescendo that spikes our interest or the characters’ willingness to go all in. That is unfortunate because these three actors are up to the task. Radcliffe handles being the core of this tale with a seamless performance. Cannavale executes his exasperation with a cornucopia of offerings. Jones, while appearing stuck physically in one chopping motion after another, pulls the ship of determination and decision into port. We are left watching her every move as the play coasts to full stop.
The conclusion leaves us suspended in the argument without knowing what happened. This is a slick cop out. Unless of course you want to fact check this true story. I did.