“All this is fact,” Marilynne Robinson writes late in her novel Housekeeping. “Fact explains nothing.” In other words, facts are just naked data waiting for interpretation. It is in that interpretation, in that carving out of a story from the facts, that one reaches truth. If the facts have to be massaged to reach a greater truth, so be it. A story can be true without being factual or factual without being true.
This is, more or less, the point being made by John D’Agata (Bobby Cannavale), an essayist whose latest piece, about a boy who jumps to his death in Las Vegas, is sure to change the conversation. His editor, Emily (Cherry Jones), has assigned an eager intern, Jim Fingal (Daniel Radcliffe), to fact-check the piece over the weekend. By Sunday morning, Jim has a spreadsheet that runs one hundred thirty pages.
You see, John isn’t concerned with actual occurrence. Instead, John is looking for a larger poetic truth in this suicide, and if that means fudging the details of the autopsy report, changing the color of the bricks on the building, or even lying about another suicide on the same day, that’s just part of his artistic license. “I’m not interested in accuracy,” he announces late in the play. “I’m interested in truth.” For John, then, Jim belongs to the pedestrian world of reportage, “beholden to every detail.” The problem is, sometimes those details can get you sued.
The Lifespan of a Fact, based on the book written by D’Agata and Fingal, is obviously written for this moment. The president, were he articulate enough, might argue that he, too, is appealing to a greater, poetic truth about white, middle-class America; that he is lying about immigration and voter fraud to speak truthfully about a feeling of grievance that he seized parts of this country. John is right, of course—we make interpretive decisions every time we speak, and journalistic integrity is something of a useful fiction that allows writers to adhere to facts without explicitly addressing their biases every time they put pen to paper. Still, the question remains: who arbitrates what is and is not truth? If all writing is a form of interpretation, what distinguishes the New York Times from Russian bots?
Lifespan doesn’t really answer this question; in fact, it doesn’t really address it. Rather, it presents the problem, packaging its epistemological ruminations in a brisk and entertaining show that plays to its actors’ strengths without straining too much intellectually. Cannavale is a towering stage presence, with a voice like cigarettes and sex, and he navigates a series of didactic speeches without trying our patience. Unfortunately, Jones doesn’t get much to work with, but Radcliffe is hysterical as the effortlessly annoying Jim, ever ready to ask just one more question. And though playwrights Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell do steer too close to hero worship, depicting John as the lonely artist-warrior battling the philistines, the result is enjoyable nevertheless. Furthermore, there is not a single line about the current administration. No glib references to walls or hacked e-mails or covfefe, proving that all art in the Age of Trump does not have to begin and end with the man himself. What a relief.