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?