A tale of talent, envy, psychosis, and danger

Although retired since 2014, I still relish opportunities to teach, write, and share opinions.

Philadelphia’s Lantern Theater Company is now presenting The Lifespan of a Fact, onstage until March 5 at St. Stephen’s Theater.

The Lifespan of a Fact by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell is based upon the book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal published in 2012. The book was the result of Mr. Fingal’s extreme notations (about 130 pages) citing every mention of any fact in Mr. D’Agata’s magazine essay (fewer than twenty pages) about a Las Vegas teen named Levi Presley who jumped from an observation deck at a casino hotel. 

A celebrated New York City production in 2018 starred Bobby Carnevale, Daniel Rascliffe, and Cherry Jones. Press reviews ranged from admiring to ecstatic. 

This production of The Lifespan of a Fact stars three talented actors, namely Trevor William Fayle as tyro journalist Jim Fingal, Joanna Liao as magazine editor Emily Penrose, and Ian Merrill Peakes as famed author John D’Agata. All three do an excellent job with their roles. 

It’s curious that the authors themselves use their own names for their characters. Many would call it creative nonfiction. If you have a long memory, you may recall Edmund Morris’ book “Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan,” which caused a sensation when published as a work of creative nonfiction, and not a strict biography. Today, we have another celebrated memoir,”Spare” by Harry Mountbatten Windsor, which has numerous “alternative facts” which the author himself defends as his memories in print.  

The plot of The Lifespan of a Fact begins placidly enough. An editor asks for volunteers to quickly fact-check a famous author’s work for publication the following week. An eager young Mr. Fingal, straight out of Harvard, volunteers, as he says, to make a name for himself. This is the editor’s first mistake, assigning him the task. Second, as busy as she is shown to be, she adds more onto her already crowded plate working with him. After decades of leadership, she hasn’t learned to delegate. A wiser move would have been to give the youth the rest of Thursday, and on Friday morning submit his progress to his supervisor, not her. As it turns out, Fingal hasn’t really worked past the first page by Sunday, the day he should be completing his assignment. The famous author makes the mistake of inviting the stranger into his home. Why? Clearly, talent and fame do not include street smarts. The author should have set limits, such as meeting in a public place for two hours, for example. The entire idea of the editor flying from New York to Las Vegas is amazing. Did the thousand dollars come from her own pocket? If not, how to explain the expense to the auditors? There are so many plot holes in the play as to resemble a well-worn fishing net. 

The Lifespan of a Fact may be experienced as a noble search for truth, or as an amusingly simple procedure gone ridiculously wrong. Beginning as something of a comedy, it assumes a sinister plot. The author claims the prerogative of genius, as a great exponent of the essay. The editor points out to him that important facts, like another suicide that happened that day, should be noted, not ignored, if for no other reason than a potential lawsuit. We then hear the innocent, naive intern more or less psychotically threatening them both unless he gets his way. What a mess. Some may say, “Well, if the great man is so famous, wouldn’t his other works give a clue to his readers that he values poetry over fact?” The answer should be, “Well … yes.” The editor who claims to work from her gut should have respected her gut feeling and printed the essay, since she considered it one of the finest pieces of writing she’s ever seen. She could have written a piece in the next issue describing her decision, and reminding readers of the author’s international reputation.

Like the play itself, three people could argue the pros and cons endlessly, so the surprise ending should not surprise anyone.

See The Lifespan of a Fact. Whether you agree with either of the three characters, or none of them at all, it remains a cogent, thought-provoking piece of theater.

The Lifespan of a Fact, onstage until March 5 at St. Stephen’s Theater, hard by City Hall. For information and tickets, www.lanterntheater.org .

Next at the Lantern will be Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, starting May 18.

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