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Robert Viagas examines The Lifespan of a Fact

The Lifespan of a Fact

By Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell.

Reviewed by Robert Viagas


One of the curses of journalism is the act of “fudging.” Not the wholesale falsifying of stories, but the adjusting of seemingly small details—“insignificant” details—to make a story more exciting, more resonant, perhaps more literary. But which only make it untrue.

If recognized, these fudges undermine the public’s faith in the story, and, ultimately, in journalism itself.

Costarring the Rushmore-like three-generation trio of Cherry Jones, Bobby Cannavale, and Mr. Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, The Lifespan of a Fact, now on Broadway at Studio 54, dramatizes this issue by presenting just such a situation as it happens at a New Yorker-like literary magazine. Jones plays the editor, who believes she has found the once-in-a-generation story about a young woman’s suicide, written by a renowned author, played by Cannavale.

The story seems like a slam-dunk prize-winner for her and for her magazine, so she assigns the pro-forma fact-checking to Jim, a promising recent college grad, played by Radcliffe. But this first-timer turns out to be more dogged and thorough than either of the veterans expected, and keeps finding tiny but significant fudges in the story that give it sweep and resonance, but which turn out to have been made up by the author.

The author is annoyed and the editor is dismissive at first, but, as the fudges pile up, the situation turns from problematic to disastrous.

It took three playwrights to adapt an essay written by two journalists (Jim D’Agata and Jim Fingal), but these too many cooks have managed not to spoil the broth. The play moves energetically and decisively as Jim keeps discovering more and more inconsistencies. The power of the play comes from the way the audience’s attitude shifts from comic annoyance with the gumshoe-like youngster, to respect for the youngster and alarm at the casual dismissiveness of the two veterans who should have known better.

Directed by Leigh Silverman, the play never gets dry or didactic. It finds plenty of humor in a situation that asks serious questions about whether journalists are less careful than they were years ago? And, if so, are their editors and other gatekeepers, like the authors of this play, equipped enough and dedicated enough to do something about it?

The Lifetime of a Fact is scheduled to play at Studio 54 in Manhattan through January 13, 2019.

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