Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following Review of THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT at THeaterworks Hartford
Through March 8th
The truth is rarely pure and never simple. – Oscar Wilde
We live in a world of truth and falsity, accuracy and approximation, speculation and knowing. That’s just the way it is and, if we really think about it, that is the way it’s been since the beginning of time. False news is certainly not a new concept. In a “ripped from the headlines” piece, TheaterWorks Hartford has mounted The Lifespan of a Fact. The quintessential issue (one that goes far beyond the confines of this theatrical work) is where do we draw the line between fact and fiction, truth and lies? From a legal standpoint (as the entertainment lawyer in me notes), adaptations from real life events used to be prefaced with “based on a true story.” Although it seems today, the legal tactic to mitigate the above-the-title notice is a new phrase, which only partially acts as a disclaimer: “inspired by true events.” The notion in the change facilitates the implied understanding that dramatic license has been used and the facts may be distorted in order to properly fit within the parameters of the genre or medium.
Hence, we have a film like The Greatest Showman starring Hugh Jackman who portrays only one particular side of a man. P.T. Barnum is portrayed as a humanitarian; a caring, sensitive, empathetic soul; however, every reference source from Wikipedia to Encyclopedia Britannica tells us otherwise. Is the film a lie? How much of it is true? Does it matter? These are the kinds of questions that arise with almost every adaptation of a “true” story or one with “real life personages.” Further, TheaterWorks ran a great gem of a piece titled Relativity starring Richard Dreyfuss which speculated that Einstein had a daughter and grandson (Pillow Talking Review http://bit.ly/2HKL1X3). How much of that was true? And do we care?
The Lifespan of a Fact is about a well-known writer commissioned to create an article – rather an essay – about the suicide of a young man in Las Vegas. Obviously, the essay not only deals with the facts of the suicide, but the gestalt of the event as it played out in Las Vegas, a city known for a high rate of suicides. The deadline for the piece is imminent and the editor calls in a Harvard Grad intern to serve as a fact checker. Although the essay is only about thirteen pages, the fact checker ends up with about one-hundred-thirty pages containing discrepancies ranging from tiny white lies to major inaccuracies and untruths. How far can actual facts be distorted, ignored, or simply changed in the name of art and dramatic license?
The three-character play consists of the essayist John D’Agata (Rufus Collins), the fact checker Jim Fingal (Nick LaMedica), and the editor Emily Penrose (Tasha Lawrence). The acting and directing (Tracy Brigden) is impeccable and a staple of any play presented by TheaterWorks. My nit-picky issues, however, arise out of the structure and nature of the play as written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell. The play is based on real events. In fact, the real personages of Jim Fingal and John D’Agata wrote about the trials and tribulations of the creation of this essay in a non-fiction book published by W.W. Norton & Company in 2012. The book consists of the original essay which was titled “What Happens There” and essentially the notes and arguments that went back and forth between D’Agata and Fingal. Although originally commissioned by Harper’s Magazine, it was not published until 2010 in The Believer. In 2018, the book was adapted into a play which premiered on Broadway, no doubt in part due to it’s A-list cast which included Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones, and Bobby Cannavale. Although the TheatreWorks version of the play was only eighty minutes without intermission, the pacing was a bit plodding and redundant as it ping-ponged back and forth between the arguments of truth versus dramatic licenses or false news. For example, although there were apparently one hundred thirty or so odd discrepancies or inaccuracies, we are bombarded with the repetition of those in the first two paragraphs of the essay. It would have been nice to know of the other inaccuracies. Additionally, the ending of the play was predictable and anti-climactic – especially since there was no denouement.
My biggest issue with the play, however, is that it is not part of a solution or panacea to the debate and/or problem of truth and lies, but rather is part of the disease itself. Indeed, the play takes dramatic licenses (aka false news) at every turn by compressing time, changing events and, most significant of all, totally making up the character of Emily Penrose, the editor. Is the play itself the height of hypocrisy and revisionist history that we have not only come to live by but to accept? There was a time when Oliver Stone was heavily criticized for taking slight dramatic license with real events in his film, The Doors. Yet, today, we overlook the real facts (or ignore them) in such biopics as Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, The Greatest Showman, and countless others.
Obviously, there are viable and credible arguments on both sides – dramatic license on the one hand and truth and accuracy on the other. Most real-life events have to be changed somewhat in order to be portrayed in theatre and film, especially where the compression of time is concerned. But is there a way to avoid this problem altogether? Perhaps there should be stronger disclaimers about the depiction of a true-life story or a complete fictionalization of the event. Inherit the Wind, for example, was a complete fictionalization of the Scopes Monkey Trial and real-life personages Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan. Despite that the play (and film) used fictitious names, places, and even characters, much of it was based on actual historical facts and many real people – where fictionalization made the story no less impactful. In fact, everyone who is familiar with Inherit the Wind knows that it is based on historical fact. The fictionalization, at the very least, gave the writers the freedom to use dramatic license in a totally fair and unbiased way.
As an aside, you should know I’ve left my wife, editor, and fact-checker to ensure the accuracy of this critique – I mean review.
In the final analysis, lines must be drawn between truth and lies. The biggest problem lies with where. Despite the play’s flaws, The Lifespan of a Fact is a thought-provoking exploration into these issues.
“Good decision-making depends on people having reliable, accurate facts put in a meaningful context. Journalism does not pursue truth in an absolute or philosophical sense, but in a capacity that is more down to earth.” – Basic Concept of Journalism by Branden Salas
I’m not even sure how to interpret the above. And I’m a writer of both fact and fiction…
I walked out into the crisp winter air following TheaterWorks Hartford’s rather interesting and thought-provoking production of The Lifespan of a Fact and if my hands weren’t stuffed so deeply in my pockets for warmth, I’d have been feverishly scratching my head. But that was likely the intention of writers Jeremy Kareken & David Murrell and Gordon Farrell, wasn’t it? [FYI: That list was written including “and” and “&” just as it appears on the program.] At least I think it was their collective intention. While I’m not entirely sure that the many convoluted contemplations swirling around my brain were the ones they’d intended to generate, nevertheless, as both a journalist and a creative writer myself, I had much to mull over on the ride home.
The premise for The Lifespan of a Fact is quite a novel one. “True-ish” as it’s been touted, it is based on some seven years of communications which began in 2003 between two very real, exceptionally literate but polar-opposite men who were paired together for a job assignment. Their copious exchanges were later turned into a non-traditional book of sorts published by W.W. Norton & Company in 2012; and then ultimately it was dramatically retooled somewhat factually into a kind of five-days-in-the-life which premiered on Broadway in 2018.
The story centers on not just the aforementioned men and their interactions, but the relationship that had been facilitated by a fictitious magazine editor by the name of Emily Penrose. As the play opens, the tough-as-nails Penrose is gearing up to publish the work of self-important, seasoned writer John D’Agata who’s been known to embellish a thing or two in his writings despite such output purportedly falling into the realm of non-fiction. D’Agata can’t seem to help himself to a heaping dose of mendacity – or perhaps many doses – as his textual essence resides in a world colored in all the many shades of gray. Penrose elects to appoint whip-smart Harvard grad Jim Fingal to take on the crusty D’Agata and his loosey-goosey work; fact-checking Fingal on the other hand, is a twenty-something whose predilection is for stark bipolarity. Translation: he lives in a realm that’s either all black or all white.
Never the twain shall meet, right? But they do. Like a bull in a china shop.
The bull-headed D’Agata’s article, er, essay titled “What Happens There” about the suicide of a young man in Las Vegas is set for publication once it’s been fact checked. The problem is that right off the bat Fingal discovers said essay is chock full of fabrications – well over a hundred pages of them he’s put on a spread sheet. Some are big and some are small, but quandaries remain: which must be corrected and which can stay? Where does one draw the line between truth and fiction? How do we decide when we must present honest reporting or when we can take poetic license? It’s a slippery, slippery slope.
And so, the show down begins as Fingal throws his punches and D’Agata darts around them left, right, and sideways; and all the while Penrose plays referee. How the match ultimately ends is…for you to find out.
The performances of this talented cast are spot-on with fantastic direction by Tracy Bridgen whose work we’ve enjoyed at TheaterWorks in Hand to God and Midsummer (a personal favorite!). Tasha Lawrence as Emily Penrose is exceptional; we’ve seen her before at TheaterWorks in A Doll’s House, Part 2 as well as at Long Wharf Theatre in The Roommate. Her ability to capture the essence of a character is true perfection. Nick LaMedica’s Jim Fingal is the perfect balance of nebbishy intellectual and unyielding rigidity – his overactive prefrontal cortex hard at work. The chemistry between Fingal and Rufus Collins’ authentically cantankerous John D’Agata are like a fully oxygenated flame, rising higher and higher as each fight the good fight for their respective positions.
Shout-outs to Brian Prather for set design; Tracy Christensen for costume design; Brian Bembridge for lighting design; Obadiah Eaves for sound design; Zachary Borovay for projection design (an integral piece in this production); and to the rest of the production team.
In a world full of fake and other misleading news, including straight up fabrications presented in our day-to-day lives through mainstream media, social media, and more, we are constantly tasked with having to evaluate what we see and read while we consider our sources. It’s maddening to think that there is real intent to misrepresent, but we know this to be true – and it happens all too often. It’s exhausting, and the truth is, many of us just don’t have the motivation, energy, or resources to delve deeper. We believe what’s presented to us without further contemplation or exploration. Who, then, are the fools? The presenters or the readers or both?
What is the lifespan of a fact? What is fact? Don’t expect to find out in The Lifespan of a Fact. Is the work intentionally ambiguous? Intentionally unsatisfying? Perhaps…and maybe that’s just what the writers intended.