John D’Agata (Mark Rubin) has written a brilliant essay, centered on a Las Vegas man who took his own life by jumping from a casino viewing deck. But as fact-checker Jim Fingal (Jay Mack) discovers, in “The Lifespan of A Fact” (onstage now at Good Theater, directed by Steve Underwood), the essay contains a dazzling number of inaccuracies about what else happened in Vegas that day.
For one thing, city councilors didn’t actually ban lap dances that day – they were just considering a bill that would do so. The “world’s oldest bottle of Tabasco” was unearthed from beneath not the Buckets of Blood Saloon, but the Boston Saloon. And another suicide that day was committed not by hanging, but also by jumping.
And all that’s just from the first sentence. Fact-checker Jim, a meticulous recent Harvard grad hired on a tight deadline by John’s editor Emily Penrose (Denise Poirier), soon tumbles down a whole rabbit hole of John’s creative liberties.
Confronted with these inaccuracies, John is not contrite. He defends his reasons for tweaking reality – rhythm, emphasis, tone, thematic meaning – even as Jim lambastes him for ethical negligence. So begins a showdown, mediated by Emily, between journalistic and literary standards, facts and “truth,” and the egos of Jim and John, in a taut comedic drama performed by a terrific Good Theater cast.
Underwood’s realistic set splits the stage between Emily’s New York office (decorated in slate-gray and modernist shapes) and John’s Vegas home (with its peach walls and his deceased mother’s bright afghan). Upstage, three panels alternately display skylines of New York and Vegas as the settings shift and the tension rises.
Mack and Rubin are well paired here and bring great energy. Mack gives Jim a strong Harvard self-assurance, a steady gaze, and an innate good humor that he modulates deftly first to alarm, then self-righteousness and rage. Rubin is pitch-perfect in John’s curmudgeonly gruffness, the edges of his mouth habitually pulled downward in aggrieved resistance. “Who are you? Why are you doing this?” he yells at Jim, voice tinged with horror, as if fact-checking were a socially deviant atrocity.
As Emily, the ever-formidable Poirier plays winningly and subtly against the cliché of the abrasive New York editor. Her Emily is a smart, knowing professional who’s at ease with power and doesn’t take anyone’s shit. Yet she’s also empathetic and disarmingly mild of manner, with a whimsical, seemingly off-hand humor that can turn razor-sharp in a heartbeat.
The cast delivers the script’s sharp banter with finesse, and despite a few slack transition moments, the show moves briskly and with purpose (ramped up by urgent TV-news-style music between scenes). At times, the script’s highly verbal comedy tumbles toward the slapstick, as when John goes, literally, for Jim’s throat. Tonally, these madcap moments feel like slightly off notes amidst the more erudite debate and snark.
Another sudden tonal shift, however, synthesizes the play so powerfully that I almost wept: Together on the couch, the three characters slowly take turns reading aloud from John’s essay. As they do, we watch them experience the story not as its creators, but as its audience. The story they sit with is so compelling, the scene directed with such spaciousness, and the characters’ transport depicted so viscerally, that what we’re witnessing seems archetypal: the power of story itself.
Interestingly, something close to all this actually happened. Real-life John D’Agata was commissioned to write his Vegas essay for Harper’s in 2003, but found it pulled after disagreements with the editor. He eventually placed it at The Believer, and when real-life Jim Fingal was assigned to fact-check it, there commenced a long, contentious email thread before the story finally ran in 2010. D’Agata and Fingal then apparently buried the hatchet to co-author the 2012 book “The Lifespan of a Fact,” which annotates D’Agata’s essay with Fingal’s fact-checks and the emails, and which is the basis for the stage play.
Now, in 2022, the conflict of “The Lifespan of a Fact” – people who more or less agree about the nature of reality arguing about how to depict that reality – might seem a little quaint. Today, our conflict increasingly involves clashes between people who hold fundamentally different understandings of reality.
Story can exacerbate those rifts. Can it also mend them? How should storytelling negotiate “fact” and “truth”?
“The Lifespan of a Fact” wisely offers no answers to any debate about story. But in its most moving moments, it both transcends and heightens the stakes of that debate.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
Just in time for the spooky season, Maine’s own award-winning indie audio storytelling pioneer Fred Greenhalgh returns with a new chapter from “The Undertow” universe, a “wickedly warped version of Maine.” The latest installment, “Undertow: Blood Forest,” unearths a terrifying new dimension to a small town’s ongoing supernatural vicissitudes: werewolves!
The season premiere of “Blood Forest” dropped on Oct. 14, and new episodes release weekly on all major podcast platforms. Three episodes will also be available in full and ad-free on premiere day for subscribers to Realm+ and Realm Unlimited. FMI: https://www.realm.fm/shows/undertow
Equally terrifyingly, in the best way, Damnationland is back! Come get your chills on at the State Theatre on Oct. 27 at the beloved festival of short horror movies by independent Maine filmmakers. This year’s fest includes genre-defying films by Emily Bodley, Thomas Campbell, Amber Chilton, Ricardo Lorenzo, Bodhi Ouellette, Phoebe Parker, Samantha Quirion, Ben Rooker, & Lola Rocknrolla. The festivities kick off with “Scary-Oke” at 7 pm (if you dare). FMI: https://damnationland.com/
— Megan Grumbling