Review: Curious Theatre Company’s “The Lifespan of a Fact”

There’s a telling moment that comes late in the “The Lifespan of a Fact” on stage —  make that on stage! —  at the Curious Theatre Company, through Oct. 16.

“Mom’s pissed,” Jim Fingal says anxiously to John D’Agata, after hanging up the phone. The young, slightly stocky magazine intern is standing in the living room of the writer whose piece he’s fact-checking. On the other end of the call was the editor-in-chief of the magazine, who is shocked to learn that Fingal is in Las Vegas.

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“The Lifespan of a Fact,” written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell. Based on the book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. Directed by Christy Montour-Larson. Featuring John Hauser, Sheryl McCallum and William Hahn. Through Oct. 16 at Curious Theatre Company, 1080 Acoma St. curioustheatre.org or 303-634-0524. COVID-19 protocols: Proof of vaccination or PCR test within 72 hours of showtime and masks required.

She last saw him across her desk at the magazine’s offices —  in New York City. In many ways, the fact-checker and the writer have bumped heads like spoiled siblings. When Penrose arrives, one of them is even physically throttling the other.

The dramatic comedy is inspired by a book, itself based on a wrestling match that took place at a magazine. Co-written by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, the book recounted with obsessive flair and unflagging attention to detail the contretemps the two came to over an article — or essay — slated to run in the well-regarded literary magazine The Believer. Article? Essay? Which one is accurate turns out to be one of the play’s jokes. (And the piece actually ran in 2010.)

The clever dramatic comedy was written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell. (It had a run on Broadway in late 2018 into 2019, and starred Danielle Radcliffe, Bobby Cannavale and Cherry Jones.) The writers situated their fictional version of the magazine in New York City.

When the play opens, editor-in-chief Emily Penrose (Sheryl McCallum) is interviewing Fingal (John Hauser) about whether he is up to the task of fact-checking the “essay.” Although the piece is about a suicide, she’s thrilled at its possibilities for the publication’s reputation. The scene has the fleet feel of an exchange out of “His Girl Friday.” He’s keen to do it; he was editor of Harvard’s Crimson newspaper. She’s keen to have it done; the presses in Kankakee, Ill., are primed.

Given the article’s author, it turns out to be a Herculean task. (Or is it Sisyphean?) William Hahn portrays D’Agata, who is immediately and repeatedly dismissive of Fingal and the job he’s been assigned. D’Agata’s position: Art doesn’t need vetting and his essay about a 16-year-old who committed suicide by jumping off the observation deck of the Stratosphere hotel is art. Period. Fingal sees facts as the allies of truth and nonfiction and he offers Penrose 130 pages of annotations and queries by way of proof.

The ensemble — directed by Christy Montour-Larson — appeals even as D’Agata’s self-serving assertions about art over fact quickly vex. For instance, he likes the number 31 over 34, although neither is accurate when it comes to how many strip clubs in Vegas were considering a temporary ban on lap dances. At one point, he tells Fingal that “‘facts” privilege some people. Others they (expletive).” The vehemence of this sentiment — along with the revelations that D’Agata attends mass and chose to stay in Vegas to care for his mother — begin to hint at a more complex soul, one the script never fully realizes.

It’s not lost on the audience that when Penrose arrives in Vegas ready to save the article, Fingal and D’Agata are still at loggerheads on the first sentences of the piece. To say that this is a problem is an understatement. To agree with D’Agata that his article —  ahem, essay — must run the way he wrote it, regardless of his inventions, in order to represent grander truths would be an  overstatement. To declare this production entertaining is just about right — no, not a fact but a humble if practiced opinion.

Still, as much as “The Lifespan of a Fact” resonates with our current culture’s agonies around truth and mendacity, facts and the bending of them, the script and the production go for fun over depth. That is, until the trio remember in the final scene what — who, really — that essay (OK, article) is about.

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