×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Broadway Review: ‘The Lifespan of a Fact’

Radcliffe, Cherry Jones and Bobby Cannavale exchange meaningful witticisms in a timely play about facts vs. truthiness.

With:
Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones, Bobby Cannavale.

Harry Potter had no sense of humor whatsoever, but Daniel Radcliffe proves to be a master of comedy in “The Lifespan of a Fact,” the brainy Broadway play that Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell adapted from a magazine article — better described, perhaps, as that classier literary form, the Essay — and a subsequent book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal.

Radcliffe plays Jim Fingal (yes, the very one), a nerdy fact-checker for a struggling literary magazine run by Emily Penrose, played by Cherry Jones in tower-of-strength style. Like literary magazines everywhere, this one is reeling from tanking ad sales, shrinking circulation and a geriatric readership. But salvation beckons in the form of a potentially sensational article — make that an Essay — by John D’Agata, a ferociously talented writer played to the hilt by the ferociously talented Bobby Cannavale.

This game-changing essay is about the suicide of a 16-year-old boy who jumped from the observation deck of a Las Vegas casino/hotel, and it does, indeed, sound like an extraordinary piece of writing.  As Emily points out, John’s essay transcends the death of one boy and speaks of so much more: “Sense from immeasurable tragedy. The history and meaning of Vegas. Despair. Yearning. What it is to be human.”

But all that power and glory are in danger of being squeezed out of the essay once young Jim gets his hands on it. Bit by bit, word by word, the fact-checker’s picky-picky “corrections” drain the life and soul out of it. To be fair, and the playwrights are scrupulously fair, the piece is riddled with factual inaccuracies, from the number of topless bars in Vegas to the name of a dive bar, which John had changed from the sedate (but correct) “Boston Saloon” to the lip-smacking “Buckets of Blood.”

Jones displays the very essence of editorial patience as she tries to resolve Jim’s finicky factual corrections with D’Agata’s impassioned, if inaccurate, “improvements” on the facts. “Don’t get bogged down in the details,” Emily keeps warning the tone-deaf Jim, to whom the “details” — that is, the facts — are all that matter. Their deadly serious but oh-so-funny ethical dispute is brilliantly argued, but when Emily realizes that she and Jim have reached an impasse, she directs him to consult the author, by which she means a telephone call. But Jim takes her at her word and flies out to Vegas to confront John face to face.

The visuals alone are priceless when Radcliffe’s prim Jim stands up to Cannavale’s big, shambling D’Agata at the writer’s family home, a perfect stereotype of middle-class dullness in Mimi Lien’s unkindly funny set design. (A sight gag in the second half of the show illustrates director Leigh Silverman’s playful take on the playwrights’ witty material.) But once the writer and the fact-checker get into a lively debate on the ethics of factual truth vs. the beauty of literary dishonesty, it’s time to really sit up and listen.

Perched on his high horse, D’Agata insists that factual events are not themselves as important as “the meaning behind the confluence of events.” But as Jim snaps back, “events didn’t conflue the way you said.” This is terrifically funny dialogue, and both actors savor every comeback. Although the writer breaks down and admits, “I’m not beholden to every detail,” the fact-checker is implacable. He wants the facts, the whole facts, and nothing but the facts.

If we were living through a different moment in time, the writer’s fabricated but emotionally wrenching “truth” would easily outweigh the fact-checker’s chilly reality of events. But with the leader of our nation stomping on truth as we know it, and the very essence of reality imperiled by political fact-stretchers, the debate at the heart of this play transcends comedy and demands serious attention.

In the end, Jim won’t bend the facts, no matter what the cost to a higher truth. “By misrepresenting official and searchable documents, you undermine your argument, you undermine society’s trust in itself,” he declares, scoring a palpable hit. But John will do whatever has to be done to find the higher truth — “the music” — of a dead boy’s tragic death. And who’s to say which one of them is speaking the kind of truth that really matters?

Broadway Review: 'The Lifespan of a Fact'

Studio 54; 1,004 seats; $169 top. Opened Oct. 18, 2018. Reviewed Oct. 13. Running time: 85 MIN.

Production: A presentation by Jeffrey Richards, Norman & Deanna Twain, Will Trice, Barbara H. Freitag, Suzanne Grant, Gold / Ross Productions, Jamie deRoy, Jennifer Manocherian, Barbara Manocherian, ManGol Productions, Carl Moellenberg / Wendy Federman, Ken Greiner, Van Kaplan, Dominick LaRuffa, Jr., Marc David Levine, WitzEnd Productions, Eric Falkenstein / Brian Moreland, Caiola Productions, Remmel T. Dickinson, Jayne Baron Sherman of a play in one act by Jeremy Kareken & David Murrell & Gordon Farrell, based on the essay and book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal.

Creative: Directed by Leigh Silverman. Sets, Mimi Lien; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, Jen Schriever; original music & sound, Palmer Hefferan; projections, Lucy Mackinnon; hair & wigs, Charles G. LaPointe; production stage manager, Martha Donaldson.

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones, Bobby Cannavale.

More Legit

  • Hillary and Clinton review

    Broadway Review: Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow in 'Hillary and Clinton'

    If anyone could play Hillary Clinton, it’s Laurie Metcalf – and here she is, in Lucas Hnath’s “Hillary and Clinton,” giving a performance that feels painfully honest and true. And if anyone could capture Bill Clinton’s feckless but irresistible charm, that would be John Lithgow – and here he is, too. Who better to work [...]

  • Hadestown review

    Broadway Review: 'Hadestown'

    “Hadestown” triggered a lot of buzz when this wholly American show (which came to the stage by way of a concept album) premiered at Off Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop in 2016. Arriving on Broadway with its earthly delights more or less intact, this perfectly heavenly musical — with book, music and lyrics by Anaïs [...]

  • Burn This review

    Broadway Review: Adam Driver, Keri Russell in 'Burn This'

    The ache for an absent artist permeates Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This,” now receiving a finely-tuned Broadway revival that features incendiary performances by Adam Driver and Keri Russell, playing two lost souls in a powerful and passionate dance of denial. AIDS is never mentioned in this 1987 play, yet the epidemic and the profound grief that [...]

  • White Noise Suzan-Lori Parks

    Listen: The 'Dumb Joke' Hidden in 'White Noise'

    Suzan-Lori Parks’ new play “White Noise” tackles a host of urgent, hot-button topics, including racism and slavery — but, according to the playwright, there’s also a “dumb joke” buried in it. Listen to this week’s podcast below: Appearing with “White Noise” director Oskar Eustis on “Stagecraft,” Variety‘s theater podcast, Parks revealed that the inspiration for [...]

  • Adam Driver appears at the curtain

    Adam Driver on Starring in 'Burn This' for a Second Time

    The Hudson Theatre’s new production of “Burn This” marks its first Broadway revival since it premiered on the Great White Way in 1987, but Adam Driver is no stranger to the work. He starred as Pale in a Juilliard production of the Lanford Wilson drama when he was still a student — and only now, [...]

  • Alan Wasser

    Alan Wasser, Tony-Winning Broadway General Manager, Dies at 70

    Alan Wasser, a veteran Broadway general manager who received an honorary Tony Award, died from complications from Parkinson’s disease in New York on Sunday. He was 70. Wasser founded Alan Wasser Associates and general managed “Les Misérables,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Miss Saigon,” three of the most successful productions of all time. He [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content