When Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, "Everybody is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts," my response was well, duh, of course! But I'm a journalist and didn't take into account that a certain president would introduce the ridiculous idea of alternative facts. Turns out a certain non-fiction writer was also fudging the facts in his essays, and it's his story that inspired "The Lifespan of a Fact," a highly provocative play about the not-so-certain nature of truth.
The writer, John D'Agata, pens a chilling essay documenting the suicide of a young man in Las Vegas. Emily, the editor of a prestigious literary magazine, decides to fast-track the article for publication and assigns Jim Fingal, an intern with a Harvard degree, to do the fact-checking. The problem is he's got five days to get it done and he quickly discovers the first sentence alone is riddled with discrepancies.
What follows is a very tight little play — actually more of a dialectic than a drama — with a narrow focus, debating the author's ethical, legal, and moral responsibility when writing about a real event. John thinks it's ok to mess with the facts as long as the inherent truth of the story is retained. Jim is a purist, insisting that facts are immutable.
Written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell, "The Lifespan of a Fact" is a riveting 90 minutes. Leigh Silverman directs with a sharp eye, encouraging her excellent actors to flesh out the roles with natural humor and nuance.
And while the work strives to be even-handed, it's clear the playwrights are more sympathetic to Jim's side of the debate. Daniel Radcliffe plays the unrelenting noodge to perfection. And when the two go at it, Bobby Cannavale's arch sense of entitlement as John makes for a most compelling dynamic. In the middle is Cherry Jones as the exasperated Emily, and she too is terrific.
I can't exactly say "The Lifespan of a Fact" is a great play, but it is an important one. And as the assault on objectivity escalates throughout the world, I wish it a long and healthy lifespan of its own.