MAY 2024 | Volume 239


Production image

Photographer Shimon Karmel.

The Lifespan of a Fact
by Jeremy Karaken, David Murrell & Gordon Farrell
Kindred Theatre
Studio 16, 1555 W. 7th Ave.
May 2-12

The Lifespan of a Fact is a fascinating play about journalism, story-telling, fiction and truth. It had its origins in a 15-page essay written for a magazine in 2003 about a suicide in Las Vegas. Due to the magazine’s obsessive fact-checker, who challenged hundreds of the author’s statements in the piece, the essay wasn’t published for seven years. In 2012, the author and fact-checker co-published a book about the event:The Lifespan of a Fact. The three-hander adapted from it in 2018 starred Daniel Radcliffe, Bobby Cannavale and Cherry Jones on Broadway.

In the Kindred Theatre production, directed by Jennifer Clement, editor Emily (Loretta Walsh) assigns Ivy League intern Jim (Tal Shulman) to fact-check the essay by hot-shot writer John (Ben Immanuel) about the suicide of a 16-year-old boy who leapt to his death from the top of Vegas’ highest tower. Emily thinks it will be a sensation and maybe save her magazine. They’re on a tight deadline, he has only four days to complete the job, but Jim is thrilled to be given real responsibility for once. Emily is stereotypically hard-edged and tough; Jim seems like a puppy dog, eager to please.

By day 4, Jim has not yet finished fact-checking the first sentence and turns up in Vegas to question the author in person. The puppy dog has turned into a pit bull who won’t let go. He’s pedantic to the core and fearless, obsessive about details, and an absolutist for accuracy. John has written that it took the body nine seconds to fall from the 1200-foot tower to the ground. Jim has done the math, consulted an expert, and insists it could only have taken eight seconds. John writes about a traffic jam on the boulevard below the tower. Jim brings a map to prove that was an exaggeration. John writes red, Jim says brown; John writes at, Jim says it was near. His list of queries and corrections is many times longer than the essay itself.

John defends his choices as doggedly and dogmatically as Jim questions them. He insists he’s not a journalist but an essayist: “I’m not interested in accuracy, I’m interested in truth.” And to get at the truth of the story, “to deepen the essential piece,” he can’t “get bogged down in details.” He chooses to rename the place where something happened because it sounds better. “The wrong facts get in the way of the story.”

John and Jim go at each other with no quarter given. Although John is a respected veteran writer and Jim just a novice, Jim stands his ground and actually gets progressively more aggressive. His principle is absolute: “How can you even claim for a moment that facts are negotiable?” John responds with a story about his mother’s death to illustrate his key principle.

Realizing that the essay is at risk of not happening, Emily shows up at John’s place, too, appalled by the stubbornness and dogmatism of both men. And as if the drama isn’t torqued up high enough, she throws her somewhat fuzzy personal trauma into the mix as well.

The central argument in the play is compelling: Is accuracy of detail the non plus ultra of storytelling? Shouldn’t facts be non-negotiable, especially (though the name is never mentioned) in the Age of Trump? Or is there a fuller truth that stories can achieve through the massaging of sheer fact? But the playwrights (three of them!) feel the need to further up the dramatic ante, turning Jim into a kind of David Mamet character, almost as if it were his plan from the beginning to sabotage the story; and turning Emily’s investment in the essay toward the melodramatic.

The character of Jim drives the play and Shulman does a remarkable job of tracking his progress from awkward outsider to ultimate arbiter of truth. Shulman is quick and very funny. If Jim’s cockiness and aggression at the end are not entirely credible, that’s on the writing, not the acting. Immanuel gives John a solidity and world-weariness that nicely counters Jim’s youthful dynamism. I had some trouble with Walsh’s Emily, tracing her accent (NY? Australia?) and understanding her stakes beyond the fate of the magazine. But overall, the ensemble works very effectively. Kudos to director Clement for its dynamic pacing.

Given that this is a play about the importance of words, Peter Wilds’ set gives prominence to a screen on which text from John’s essay, text messages and Jim’s queries appear.

In the age of fake news and alternative facts, this play raises questions very worth considering.



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