Consensus has been one of the main casualties of Donald Trump’s disastrous presidency. What Postmodernism started, a White House of “alternative facts” ended. We are all now looking through relativistic lenses and accepting the reality that best matches our beliefs and interests.
The topic of truth and journalism has become even more complicated since “The Lifespan of a Fact” hit Broadway in 2018. The play by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell was written before ‘the big lie’ sparked the January 6 riot. at the US Capitol. Fox was not yet fending off a massive defamation lawsuit alleging Trump’s election fraud. Our democracy was certainly tested, but our constitutional system didn’t seem to hold up by threads alone.
The dire state of our polarized politics can’t help but affect how we view “The Lifespan of a Fact,” which has its West Coast premiere at the Fountain Theater under the direction of Simon Levy. The play is based on a book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal that chronicles their epic journalistic battle over the meaning of truth.
In one corner stands a literary essayist (D’Agata) who writes lyrically about the real-life tragedy of a young man who jumped to his death from the roof of a Las Vegas hotel. The other features a diligent young fact-checker (Fingal) who is determined not to let the slightest mistake get into the published piece.
The deployment is relatively small, but the intensity of the fighting is fierce. Searching D’Agata’s 15-page essay, Fingal produces a 130-page spreadsheet of questions. Some are small. (Is the hotel pavilion brick red or brown?) Others are more consistent. (Did anyone else commit suicide that same day in Las Vegas?)
The two men argue about the exact number of seconds it took Levi Presley to drop dead. D’Agata writes it was nine seconds, but Fingal, citing the coroner’s report, insists it was eight. Numbers are not important to D’Agata in themselves. He responds better to symbolism, symmetry and the sound of syllables. Fingal is understandably baffled by this nonchalant attitude to countable reality.
The conflict is staged for comedic effect. The authors of the play do not take sides. D’Agata’s position is hardly defensible on literary grounds, but Fingal’s obsession can make it seem that no piece of information can withstand his relentless scrutiny.
On Broadway, Daniel Radcliffe was like a fact-checker on a religious mission. His Fingal was compelled to root out malicious falsehoods of every magnitude, even if his fanaticism ended his career. Radcliffe’s hard conviction tipped the game in Fingal’s favour.
At the Fountain, the theatrical competition shifts a bit to D’Agata, thanks to Ron Bottitta’s robust performance. Amazed at the daring of an ordinary intern to question his literary brilliance, Bottitta’s D’Agata treats Jonah Robinson’s Fingal like a nasty mosquito that has entered his house through a hole in a screen.
Actually, Fingal knocked on D’Agata’s door after flying in from New York. This trip was not part of the editorial plan. Fingal is panicked about the impending deadline of the magazine’s editor, Emily Penrose (Inger Tudor). The assignment represents his big break, and the Harvard graduate pretends his very existence depends on the outcome.
Joel Daavid’s quaint design evokes both the Midcentury Modern decor of D’Agata’s Vegas home and the magazine’s modern headquarters. Nicholas Santiago’s video design familiarizes us with the various forms of written communication that ping pong with heightened frenzy between New York and Nevada.
The character of Tudor has been endorsed. (Even the endlessly resourceful Cherry Jones couldn’t turn Penrose into an equal theatrical combatant in the Broadway production, which also starred Bobby Cannavale as D’Agata.) But Tudor seems a little too sincere and low-key for a formidable magazine editor.
Robinson is perfectly picky as Fingal, who knows he’s insufferable but can’t help it. The character is largely overrun with fear because as the low man on the totem pole he doesn’t want to jeopardize his expected place in the professional elite. But he also believes that without accurate information there can be no shared knowledge.
Bottitta’s D’Agata is the whisky-drinking common man who becomes imperious when someone tries to tamper with his work. His regal indifference to facts is not easily justified, but as a leading figure in the literary non-fiction genre, he claims to seek a truth higher than superficial journalism.
“The longevity of a fact” may not seem like a big deal right now, given everything that’s going on. But this impression is itself a bit misleading. Sweating the fine details in an age when authoritarians blur the line between fact and fiction is an urgent matter. But so is reexamining our assumptions about these categories, which may not be as discreet as we think.
‘The lifespan of a fact’
Where: Fountain Theater, 5060 Fountain Ave., LA
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Monday; Sunday 2 p.m. Ends April 2.
Information: (323) 663-1525, FountainTheater. com
Duration: 1 hour and 20 minutes, no intermission