DC Theater Arts Review: THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT

THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, & Gordon Farrell. Photo: Cameron Whitman
‘Lifespan of a Fact’ at Keegan Theatre asks how to tell the truth

The duration of the real-life argument between writer John D’Agata and fact-checker Jim Fingal over the content of D’Agata’s piece about the suicide of a teenage boy in Las Vegas was, in fact, seven years. The Lifespan of a Fact, by Jeremy Kareken with David Murrell and Gordon Farrell, now playing at The Keegan Theatre, compresses their acrimony into five days. The play becomes a cautionary tale about the ways self-involved people can make a controversy more about their egos than the principles they articulate.

D’Agata (Colin Smith) is all arrogant confidence, disdainful of the notion that detailed accuracy matters. Tone and style matter: 34 is to be preferred over 31, he says, because “four” sounds better than “one.” … For Fingal, D’Agata’s cavalier disregard of what Fingal sees as hard, cold reality is an affront to what nonfiction writing must necessarily be about. The attitude of each toward the other is “How dare you?” If their confrontation could be characterized as a contest to determine which man is more annoying, a fair observation would be that the contest is a draw.

Matters between them get sufficiently out of hand that Penrose decides to catch a quick flight to Las Vegas to mediate. Played by Herren as a somewhat world-weary veteran of the decline of print media, Penrose simply seeks a “good faith effort” to avoid litigation over the contents of her magazine while preserving what everyone believes will be successful prose, if it is publishable.

Under Susan Marie Rhea’s direction, the actors maintain a high level of energy throughout, and the cast’s timing does justice to the script’s many witty lines, particularly in the exchanges between D’Agata and Fingal.

The personal pyrotechnics aside, The Lifespan of a Fact does address what are real issues in the intersection of journalism and creative writing. At one end of the spectrum are mere recitations of facts without analysis or background, which can leave readers uninformed about the context and meaning of events. At the other end are descents into mere fiction, bereft of grounding in a reality outside the writer’s mind, most notoriously in this city in Janet Cooke’s 1980 Washington Post feature story about a nonexistent child heroin user. Finding a sustainable middle ground is a continuing challenge.