The duration of the real-life argument between writer John D’Agata and fact-checker Jim Fingal over the content of D’Agata’s piece about the suicide of a teenage boy in Las Vegas was, in fact, seven years. The Lifespan of a Fact, by Jeremy Kareken with David Murrell and Gordon Farrell, now playing at The Keegan Theatre, compresses their acrimony into five days. The play becomes a cautionary tale about the ways self-involved people can make a controversy more about their egos than the principles they articulate.
We first see Fingal (Iván Carlo) entering the office of magazine editor Emily Penrose (Sheri S. Herren) as an almost puppyishly enthusiastic intern, eager to accept an assignment to do what Penrose pictures as a relatively routine final fact-check of what D’Agata insists on calling an “essay” about the suicide (not an “article”). Fingal begins to find minor inconsistencies — are there 34 strip clubs in Las Vegas or 31, are bricks on a building brown or red? — that put him on the scent for more, and more significant, factual issues.
Fingal suddenly flies from New York to Las Vegas, where he winds up sleeping on D’Agata’s sofa, much to the surprise of not only his unwilling host but his editor as well. In short order — less a character arc than a character leap — Fingal transforms into a zealous inquisitor, aggressively challenging D’Agata’s writing on a sentence-by-sentence, sometimes word-by-word, basis.
D’Agata (Colin Smith) is all arrogant confidence, disdainful of the notion that detailed accuracy matters. Tone and style matter: 34 is to be preferred over 31, he says, because “four” sounds better than “one.” Painting a picture of the boy who killed himself that the boy’s mother recognizes matters, even if altered or invented statements are useful in painting that picture in an esthetically pleasing way. “Facts are the enemy of truth,” Don Quixote’s proclamation in Man of La Mancha, might well be D’Agata’s motto.
For D’Agata, Fingal’s comments are an affront not only to his words but to his entire approach to writing, and from a younger, inexperienced, and unworthy antagonist at that. For Fingal, D’Agata’s cavalier disregard of what Fingal sees as hard, cold reality is an affront to what nonfiction writing must necessarily be about. The attitude of each toward the other is “How dare you?” If their confrontation could be characterized as a contest to determine which man is more annoying, a fair observation would be that the contest is a draw.
Matters between them get sufficiently out of hand that Penrose decides to catch a quick flight to Las Vegas to mediate. Played by Herren as a somewhat world-weary veteran of the decline of print media, Penrose simply seeks a “good faith effort” to avoid litigation over the contents of her magazine while preserving what everyone believes will be successful prose, if it is publishable.
Penrose strongly resists attempts to probe into her personal life, specifically insisting that she is not anyone’s mother. This is an apt protest on her part, given that D’Agata and Fingal carry on like smart but unruly middle-school brats much of the time. She ultimately seeks a degree of peace by sitting D’Agata and Fingal down on the sofa as all three take turns reading portions of what D’Agata has written.
Under Susan Marie Rhea’s direction, the actors maintain a high level of energy throughout, and the cast’s timing does justice to the script’s many witty lines, particularly in the exchanges between D’Agata and Fingal. Once Penrose arrives, there are some mechanical moments in the blocking, as she orders D’Agata or Fingal to leave through one of the doors on Matthew J. Keenan’s set to create a two-character scene. Jeremy Bennett’s projections capably fill in the visual backgrounds of New York and Las Vegas.
The personal pyrotechnics aside, The Lifespan of a Fact does address what are real issues in the intersection of journalism and creative writing. At one end of the spectrum are mere recitations of facts without analysis or background, which can leave readers uninformed about the context and meaning of events. At the other end are descents into mere fiction, bereft of grounding in a reality outside the writer’s mind, most notoriously in this city in Janet Cooke’s 1980 Washington Post feature story about a nonexistent child heroin user. Finding a sustainable middle ground is a continuing challenge.
The Lifespan of a Fact is a recent play, having made its Broadway debut in 2018, based on a book jointly published by D’Agata and Fingal in 2012, relating to events that occurred from 2003 to 2010. Its conflict is between two people representing competing ideas of how best to tell the truth. That being the case, the play’s point has been somewhat overtaken by events. In a world of “alternative facts” and constant and deliberate fabrications as a signal feature of public discourse, truth being irrelevant, disagreement about different modes of arriving at truth can seem almost quaint.
Running Time: 85 minutes with no intermission.
The Lifespan of a Fact plays through February 25, 2023, at The Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church Street, Washington DC. Tickets ($55; $45 for students and seniors) are available online.
COVID Safety: Masks are optional but encouraged. See the theater’s Health and Safety page here.
The Lifespan of a Fact by Jeremy Kareken & David Murrell and Gordon Farrell
CAST: Colin Smith as John D’Agata, Sheri Herren as Emily Penrose, and Iván Carlo as Jim Fingal
PRODUCTION: Susan Marie Rhea (Director), Jeremy Bennett (Projections Designer), Gabrielle Busch (Stage Manager), Brandon Cook (Sound Designer), Venus Gulbranson (Lighting Designer), Shadia Hafiz (Costume Designer), Cindy Landrum Jacobs (Properties and Set Dressing Designer), Matthew J. Keenan (Resident Scenic Designer and Lead Carpenter), and Ryan Sellers (Fight Choreographer)