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The Lifespan of a Fact Probes the Border Between a Good Story and Fake News

Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones, and Bobby Cannavale star in this new Broadway play.

Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones, and Bobby Cannavale star in The Lifespan of a Fact, directed by Leigh Silverman, at Broadway's Studio 54.
(© Peter Cunningham)

One man hurls another across the room and begins to choke him before a referee breaks it up. No, this isn't the McGregor vs. Khabib fight, but The Lifespan of a Fact, the new Broadway play at Studio 54 that is more of an adrenaline rush than MMA — and far more consequential. At stake is the very notion of the truth as it applies to the news, a subject that journalists are dying for across the world. Not only is this fight worth your attention, it ought to be essential viewing for every citizen in a free society.

In one corner is rock star writer John D'Agata (Bobby Cannavale). He doesn't consider himself a journalist, but an "essayist." His latest essay is about a man who committed suicide by jumping off the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas. In the other corner is fact-checker Jim Fingal (Daniel Radcliffe), who has a few questions about the facts in John's story — 130 pages worth, to be exact. Emily Penrose (Cherry Jones), the magazine editor who decided to run D'Agata's story and assigned Fingal to check it, serves as referee. She judiciously determines where D'Agata's poetic license expires, and where Fingal is being unreasonable in his insistence that everything is verifiable. All three battle the clock: If they don't finish by 8am Monday, the magazine is going to run a puff piece about congressional spouses instead.

Bobby Cannavale plays John D'Agata, and Daniel Radcliffe plays Jim Fingal in The Lifespan of a Fact.
(© Peter Cunningham)

This seems like an almost impossible task considering the irreconcilable worldviews at play: When Fingal tells D'Agata that his cavalier approach to the facts violates "about ten different rules of journalistic integrity," D'Agata fires back, "'About' ten, Jim? What happened to accuracy? Or did 'ten' just work well for the effect you wanted to achieve?" He grins into his coffee mug as he takes a celebratory sip of Maxwell House. Point scored.

Cannavale excels as the sensitive Gen-X literary rebel, using his age, experience, and imposing physical stature to bully the pint-size millennial fact-checker. But Radcliffe, armed with a flawless American accent and a focus on his objective that is almost diagnosable, is unwavering. He takes a hit and stands right back up, knowing that he has a job to do. It's thrilling to watch these two acting titans throw down.

That their portrayals bear little resemblance to the real-life Fingal and D'Agata is of no consequence. This hugely entertaining and insightful play is primarily the creation of playwrights Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell. It is based on the book Fingal and D'Agata wrote about their fraught collaboration over a real essay in The Believer. One wonders what has been lost in translation over those very different forms. Luckily, theater is under no obligation to privilege facts over good storytelling.

John D'Agata (Bobby Cannavale) defends his essay to Emily Penrose (Cherry Jones) in The Lifespan of a Fact.
(© Peter Cunningham)

Not so with Penrose and her magazine. "You may or may not be a journalist," she hits back at D'Agata, "but I am and my magazine, like it or not, is going to be judged by journalistic standards." Jones delivers an impressive tightwire act as a woman who has to produce a publication that is entertaining, informative, and profitable. Her protective posture toward Fingal betrays a lifetime of HR meetings, while the disdain with which she expectorates the phrase "monetized content" tells its own sad story. She's a servant of far too many masters, and by the end, her objective invariably devolves into not getting sued.

Director Leigh Silverman deftly infuses the inherent drama of this piece with ample comedy. We laugh, if only because the stakes are so high: "By misrepresenting official and searchable documents, you undermine your argument, you undermine society's trust in itself," Fingal contends, like a prosecutor making a closing statement. Anyone who has been living in America for the last three years knows that he's right. At the same time, we cannot discount D'Agata's point that the facts tend to privilege those with the power to decide which facts matter and which do not. Silverman gives air to multiple perspectives and places them in combat in a production that roars with glorious, complicated life.

Daniel Radcliffe plays fact-checker Jim Fingal in The Lifespan of a Fact.
(© Peter Cunningham)

Mimi Lien's sets chug on and off in a mechanical fashion that suggests our characters are trapped in a machine far bigger than themselves. Linda Cho's contemporary costumes give us a sense of how these characters view themselves while also adding color to the story. The approaching dawn of Jen Schriever's spectacular natural lighting asserts the time crunch our characters are under, and Palmer Hefferan's original music keeps our pulses racing.

The Lifespan of a Fact contains a surprising amount of depth for a 90-minute play: From the mountaintop on which D'Agata and Fingal duke it out, we can see the entire trajectory of the contemporary concept of the truth, from the postmodern deconstruction of Jacques Derrida to the alternative facts of Kellyanne Conway. If you want to know how we migrated into this valley of darkness, see this play.