The Lifespan of a Fact - Gloucester Stage Company
The Lifespan of a Fact – Gloucester Stage Company
Review by James Wilkinson
The Lifespan of a Fact is presented by Gloucester Stage Company. Written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell. Directed by Sam Weisman. Scenic Design: J Michael Griggs. Lighting Design: Marcy Barbeau. Costume Design: Gail Astrid Buckley. Sound Design: Dewey Dellay. Props Design: Lauren Corcuera.
Truth (and that’s with a capital ‘T’) is one of those words artists throw around when they’re in an especially pretentious mood. The idea that the glory of art is its pursuit of a higher truth is an idea drilled into arts students at school, mostly as a defense when their parents express concerns that they’re not pursuing a more “practical” career path. I’ve never really been able to buy into those lofty notions about truth. It’s not that I doubt art’s ability to investigate concepts, it’s that I’ve had to listen to too many hack artists use the party line as an excuse for whatever bit of nonsense they’re up to at the moment. When you counter their claim with inquiry, “Yes, but what does that mean?” you’ll usually send them stumbling into some vague definition for that grand word: Truth.
It’s not entirely their fault. I’ll concede that truth can be a tricky concept to wrap your head around, not made any easier by the fact that we live in a time where so many societal forces (marketing, politicians, news media) all work to warp our sense of what the plain and simple facts are. Just what are we supposed to do when we cannot agree on what the truth is? These are the murky waters that Gloucester Stage Company’s new production, The Lifespan of a Fact, looks to dip its toe into. Based on the book of the same name, (which is itself based on an essay and several real-life experiences), it’s a play with a backstory so fascinating that it nearly eclipses the play. The Gloucester Stage production, helmed by director Sam Weisman, is the play’s first since premiering on Broadway last year. I have to admit that it took me a while to warm up to The Lifespan of a Face, (long enough that I began worrying that it would never happen). My patience was rewarded, though, as Gloucester Stage’s sleek production manages to find its rhythm with the script and snaps into focus.
Editor Emily Penrose (Lindsay Crouse) is looking to boost her magazine’s profile by publishing an essay by John D’gata (Michey Solis). D’gata, a writer with David Foster Wallace’s cult status and Norman Mailer’s ego, has written a piece on the suicide of a teenager who leapt from the top of a Las Vegas hotel. By all accounts, it’s a gorgeous and thoughtful piece of writing but before Emily can send the piece to the printers, she needs to have it fact checked, a task she assigns to intern Jim Fingal (Derek Speedy). She expects this to be a formality, but Jim throws himself into the task and quickly finds a number of discrepancies between what John has written and what actually happened. Some are small (bricks on a building are described as red rather than brown) while others are a bit more relevant (another local suicide is cited as a hanging when in fact, it was another jumper). Rather than dispute the inconsistencies, Jim freely admits them, claiming that his piece is a work of art and that any changes he made were in service of a larger, deeper truth. John’s rational horrifies Jim, who claims that John’s manipulations betray the trust of the reader and therefore the piece can’t be published. This leads to an internal crisis where all three end up at D’gata’s Nevada house arguing and negotiating over where the line of truth needs to be drawn in the sand, all the while the countdown to the magazine’s printing deadline approaches.
I was a bit weary going into The Lifespan of a Fact when I noticed that the playbill credited three separate playwrights (Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell). That type of situation can lead to a “Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen” scenario where the finished play ends up a mess of unconnected ideas, but here the writers seem to have all gotten on the same page. They’ve taken the premise of the original book and turned it into a fairly standard character-driven comedy that manages to mine quite a few laughs out of the scenario. That madcap comedy framework actually becomes misleading because you assume that much of it is a writer-created dramatic device. Part of what makes the play interesting is to dig into the original story and find out just how much the playwrights didn’t invent. Not only are Jim and John real-life figures who collaborated when Jim fact-checked an essay John wrote for a literary magazine, but the original essay with its oft-quoted opening line really does exist and can be read online.
Circling back to the theater, I think that the early scenes in Lifespan come off as a bit too “Slot A into Hole B” for my own taste. The Jim character basically introduces himself by reciting his resume while Emily uses her first lines to immediately and explicitly lay out what will be the play’s action and stakes. Director Weisman doesn’t exactly help matters by staging those early scenes with unnatural movements. Given how interesting the material is, you can’t help but wish that its presentation was a bit less by the book. It clearly conveys necessary plot information, but it also makes it difficult for us to see the shades in its characters. D’gata’s character suffers the most from this. He spends so much time spouting (what seems like) unnecessary aggression and hatred towards Jim that it’s a turn off. We can’t see the person behind the hostility. It’s fairly late in the play when we finally see another side of him and can finally see his humanity.
[Side note: I had originally intended to question how realistic it was that a writer of his stature could be so dense and combative about the ethics of what he was doing, but based on a few reviews I read of the original book, it appears that in real life he really was as much of a smug asshole as portrayed. So…shows what I know…]
Eventually, though, the play manages to get all of its characters in the same location and that’s when the play springs to life. Jim and John aren’t just characters, but also contrasting philosophies about the nature of truth. They needed to be given the space to present their cases both to Emily and to the audience. When all three are put together Weisman’s staging begins to feel much more natural and the actors are finally able to properly bounce off each other (prior to this scene they’re often stuck communicating via email and phones). The three central actors of Crouse, Speedy and Solis turn in great comic performances (Crouse begins the play a bit stiff, but I suspect she’ll loosen as the run goes on). They manage to make us feel just how high the stakes are for these characters. This debate over truth in art isn’t a friendly sparring over beers, each is genuinely convinced of the importance of their position and is terrified of the possible consequences of losing the argument.
Fans of the NPR show This American Life might remember that a few years ago, the program had to retract an episode dedicated to a Mike Daisy monologue about iPhone workers in China when it turned out that Daisey had made similar fudges to the facts to fit the narrative that he wanted to tell. A few years before that, the memoirist James Frey fell into controversy when it was revealed that parts of his memoir A Million Little Pieces were either embellished or fabricated. When confronted, both writers made similar claims to D’gata, that what they were doing was in service of art, not factual reporting. Where do I fall on that question? Two days after seeing the production, I’m still figuring it out. With Lifespan of a Fact Gloucester Stage’s production is one looking to give you a conversation for the car ride home. I suggest that you let it.
The Lifespan of a Fact is presented at Gloucester Stage Company, August 30-September 22, 2019.
For tickets and more information, visit their website: www.gloucesterstage.com
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