- Courtesy Of Lindsay Raymondjack Photography
- Timmy Lewis and Jordan Gullikson
By the night when The Lifespan of a Fact opened on Broadway in October 2018, Donald Trump had told 6,135 lies as president, and everyone knew what a fact-checker did. The play is the true story of trying to tell a true story. A prestigious writer with little concern for strict accuracy goes head-to-head with a fresh-faced magazine intern who intends to verify every statement in his piece. Comedy ensues.
Earning a reader's trust is what's at stake. The hyperbolically diligent fact-checker believes any misstatement undermines the essay, while the author thinks he can't make his point without taking liberties. In the Vermont Stage production, their battle is both funny and thought-provoking.
Time for a fact-check — was it exactly 6,135 lies? Nope, that's an extrapolation from competing counts of Trump's falsehoods, but a number gives the sentence authority. That's the essence of the debate in Lifespan, so pick your side by choosing whether the number is a useful illustration or an unacceptable claim.
The play, by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell, is based on real-life magazine writer John D'Agata and fact-checker Jim Fingal. The two had a sufficiently memorable ordeal fact-checking a D'Agata story that they ended up coauthoring a book about creative license and the definition of nonfiction.
The play's characters may well stray from their real-life counterparts, but the essay they tussle over remains the same. In its first sentence, D'Agata writes that there are 34 strip clubs in Las Vegas. Fingal notes that the best source puts the number at 31. D'Agata won't budge: 34 just sounds better. And they're off, huffing, stomping, staying up all night and never giving an inch.
D'Agata's writing style relies on swamping the reader with details, collecting diverse and seemingly unconnected elements to make his descriptions jangle with kaleidoscopic specificity. Whatever the artistic merits of stringing together so many particulars, each one of them is a fact ripe for checking. Never mind that very few of the facts are anything more than atmosphere, employed only to show the breadth of his brush. Fingal is going to verify them.
The play's humor comes from the characters' intransigence about facts that mean very little on their own. The battle is about credibility, and both the liberty-taking writer and the punctilious fact-checker have good points. Unfortunately, an abstract argument like this can only get louder when the stakes themselves remain so low. In this production, the two main performers more than compensate as they spar and sputter and finally connect, but the play's conflict isn't about truth and society: It's about minutiae exaggerated for comic effect.
Straining to keep these combatants harnessed to a common cause is the magazine's editor, Emily Penrose. She has the crucial job of keeping the deadlock from bogging down the play, pulling alternately on each side in this tug-of-war.
The playwrights invented Penrose, along with an artificial publishing deadline and some fairly silly excuses to get all three people in the same room (theater!) for a task normally handled by phone and email (reality).
D'Agata's essay — he considers himself far too important an author to call it an "article" — concerns a teenager who jumped to his death from the tower of the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas. The story is about Vegas, suicide and American culture in general, and, as the play progresses, we see that each character has experienced a loss that shapes his or her concern for getting every word in the story right. But they differ, to the bitter end, on what "right" means.
- Courtesy Of Lindsay Raymondjack Photography
- From left: Jordan Gullikson, Timmy Lewis and Maria Hendricks
Timmy Lewis, as Fingal, unravels beautifully as his trials take their toll. He never breathes too hard on the comic bellows; he lets the circumstances stay funny while the character stays earnest. And he captures youth itself, blindly confident enough to confront D'Agata and craven enough to hide in a closet.
Jordan Gullikson plays D'Agata as an artist, not a blowhard. Gullikson gives him a steely passion, but when D'Agata starts swatting at the fly he believes Fingal to be, he drops his egomania to take a closer look. As the two of them connect and grow curious about each other, this production takes off.
Maria Hendricks, as Penrose, reacts to each event as if it were an emergency never before seen in publishing. Her shrieks are too overwrought for comedy and too silly for crisis. Still, in the play's final scene, Hendricks creates a solemn moment for the three of them.
Director Cristina Alicea orchestrates some precision door slams and eye rolls, but her main job is keeping a conceptual argument engrossing. She makes it pedal-to-the-metal comedy, and the pace is invigorating.
Scenic designer Chuck Padula takes his own artistic license, creating an antiseptic, upper-class living room when the script calls for the working-class Las Vegas house of D'Agata's mother. Lighting designer John B. Forbes makes clever use of pinpoint spotlights, and sound designer Harry Chaikin lets us hear the whoosh of emails flying.
Costumer Cora Fauser gives Penrose a bit of Manhattan flash, wraps what must be Fingal's first on-the-job tie around his neck and puts D'Agata in the modern equivalent of Norman Mailer's man-of-the-people wardrobe.
"Facts are stubborn things," founding father John Adams said when presenting evidence in defense of the British soldiers who fired on the crowd at the Boston Massacre. Indeed, facts often get in the way of what we wish were true. In 1988, Ronald Reagan tried to quote Adams but delivered a slip of the tongue: "Facts are stupid things." Let the record show he corrected himself in the moment, but the sentiment has taken on a life of its own.
The play's protagonists sit at those two poles. And they never reach a truce.