In our current socio-political climate, everyone can and should understand the importance of credibility, and how the fudging of details, or complete disregard for them, is a dangerous path to take. For that reason, this true-life scenario that sparked the much-celebrated book The Lifespan of a Fact in 2012 by Jim Fingal and John D’Agata – which has now resulted in a marvelously entertaining and thought-provoking play of the same name at Studio 54 – has even more timeliness than one might imagine.
Intriguingly, the story behind the story doesn’t sound inherently theatrical. Fingal (Daniel Radcliffe), a young, over-dedicated intern at a magazine, and D’Agata (Bobby Cannavale), a more celebrated essayist, essentially argue endlessly, repeatedly, even repetitiously over possible mistakes in the writer’s article about the suicide of Levi Presley, a 16-year-old who jumped from the top of the Stratosphere Hotel. (The piece was eventually published in the magazine The Believer in 2010, having been previously rejected by Harper’s).
The battle onstage is less about the circumstances surrounding Levi’s death than the notion of “truth,” points baldly if effectively made by the show’s script by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell, and underlined by the flawless direction of Leigh Silverman.
What makes Lifespan so vibrant is the full-bodied characterizations of its players, and how brilliantly they’ve been brought to life. Radcliffe, in yet another impressive stage performance, completely embodies the passion, arrogance and obsessive-compulsive nature of Fingal, a young man of enormous privilege (he constantly brings up his recent Harvard education) and little social grace who seems equally determined to “make good” at his dream job and win his battles at any cost (because he’s used to winning). His methods and ideological stubbornness – there’s little doubt that he truly believes journalism allows no margin of error – can make Fingal a somewhat difficult character to root for, and Radcliffe earns bonus points for never pandering to the audience for sympathy.
In the equally hardheaded D’Agata, Fingal has certainly met his match. He’s splendidly embodied by Cannavale – with just the right, slight touch of menace – as a man who overcame personal hurdles to achieve his success and who firmly believes the overall “truth” of his vision is far more important than the number of strip clubs in Las Vegas, the color of the bricks at the base of the Stratosphere Hotel or the size of a so-called traffic jam. Yet, even if you are able to take his side, it’s hard to understand his obstinacy in not changing a key point about how another teenager (a young woman) committed suicide on the same day.
Were the play simply this mano-a-mano battle, it might wear too thin before its 90 minutes, but the ever-wonderful Cherry Jones as the piece’s editor, Emily Penrose, proves to be its secret weapon. Her Emily is alternately flinty, frustrated, self-reliant, maternal and, above all, pragmatic, trying desperately to balance her own standards with what she knows might be the benefits of publishing D’Agata’s piece even with some of its inaccuracies intact. More than either man, Emily – especially in Jones’ expert hands – becomes the heart and soul of this fascinating play.