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Theater Review: The Lifespan of a Fact

Wednesday, November 21, 2018 - 07:50

After some dithering, I decided to see only one show on this trip to New York. (There always seems to be a non-zero chance that either Lauri or I will get a cold while I'm visiting, and besides I wanted to manage at least two dinner meet-ups with friends. So maybe sometimes I don't have to over-schedule my visits?) We decided to walk down from Lauri's place to the theater district and pick a place for dinner along the way, which ended up being the Oxbow Tavern. Food served in a very trendy presentation (truffle foam around my pan-fried hallibut) but quite delicious.

We'd considered several possible shows to see, but I settled on The Lifespan of a Fact as being of nerdy interest (central conflict involves the process of fact-checking a magazine essay) and because Cherry Jones was performing and Lauri likes her (and I'd enjoyed her performance a few years ago in The Glass Menagerie). Oh, and also this guy named Daniel Radcliffe. The third performer was Bobby Cannavale who I confess I'm not familiar with. All three gave stunning performances and inhabited their roles perfectly.

So here's the premise: older female magazine editor assigns eager young white male (Harvard graduate) intern to do the rush fact-checking on an essay about a suicide in Las Vegas by a middle-aged author who sees himself as a Serious Meaningful Writer (a writer of essays not of articles thank you very much). Eager young intern is eager and sets out to check every single fact in the essay. Not just spellings of names and places, but every single potentially verifiable statement included in the piece. Because it's his first serious assignment and he wants to do it right. This leads him into an extended clash with Serious Meaningful Writer for whom the details of the fact-like-objects exist to serve the larger emotional narrative.

The play is about the conflict between truth and story. Between the importance of journalistic reliability and trust and the need to construct narratives that give a meaning to the otherwise senseless things that happen every day. The editor serves, not only to propel the conflict (by overly impressing the importance of the fact-checking job upon an impressionable and ambitious intern) but as go-between and moderator between the other two characters, while representing the inexorable approach of the press deadline as well as debating the competing requirements of business and principle.

The themes of the play resonated strongly with me both as a linguist and a writer: the ways in which language shapes our understanding and interaction with the world, how we impose meaning on what is often an arbitrary and random existence, and the slipperiness of "truth". (Ok, so I had a bit of a geekgasm when one bit hinged on dissecting the semantics of a preposition.)

Radcliffe plays an excellent Eager Young Thing, with that air of Ivy League priviledged assumption that truth is truth and is knowable. Cannavale has the air of a toned-down but still gritty aspiring Hunter S. Thompson -- not so much in the drug-fueled gonzo style, but with that sense of journalism as performance. And Jones tackles the archetype of the hard-driving editor who wants one more triumph to rest on. (It occurs to me that we have an actual archetype of the older middle-aged female magazine editor that needn't be read as representing any particular real person. How delightful.)

I won't give away some of my favorite twists in the show--including the final resolution. But overall, my favorite element was how the audience is asked to understand and agree with both positions in the conflict. Neither is right or wrong in absolute terms, and yet they are incompatible. The ultimate irony, of course, is that the play itself, while based on an actual true story, has adapted, changed, twisted, and distorted that original truth in the service of narrative. (The original multi-year interaction is compressed down to 5 days, the writer's home and day-job prestige status are shifted, as well as all the much more minor changes required for theatrical purposes.) Perhaps that makes the show come down unambiguously on the side of narrative over truth, but not in a way that undermines the balance within the show itself.

The Lifespan of a Fact is playing at Studio 54 and is worth consideration if you're in NYC and want to take in a show.

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