Reality check: “The Lifespan of a Fact”

by jon friedman

Are facts negotiable?

Is there a distinction between truth and accuracy? Should there be one at all?

For our purposes, the key question is: Can a lesson in news literacy be entertaining in a darkened Broadway theater?

I can answer the last question emphatically: Definitely, yes.

“The Lifespan of a Fact,” the much-discussed show at Studio 54, raises these and other points that are so essential here in the Trump presidency, when it can feel like truth is in the eye of the beholder and facts are up for grabs.

One of the reasons why the discourse is lively and fun is that the the actors don’t preach and instead leave it to the audience to come up with the answers.

The production, which lasts for approximately an hour and 25 minutes (with no intermission), moves along at a brisk pace. The dialogue is snappy throughout. The stellar cast — the always-brilliant Cherry Jones as Emily the editor, Daniel Radcliffe (firmly shedding whatever Harry Potter image may still remain) portraying Jim the fact-checker and Bobby Cannavale (looking comfortable playing John, the tough-talking writer) were terrific. It was as if they were playing three-on-three basketball at a high level, with each actor generously passing the ball around before one of them took a shot.

Unfortunately, the very earnest show also deserves what some college educators call an Accuracy F. It’s really too bad that a very entertaining show has this stone in its shoe because, God knows, the media could use something to proclaim how valuable journalism is in these strained times.

When the play opens, Daniel Radcliffe appears as a frightfully green but determined kid who has been with a magazine for a matter of months. Yet his no-nonsense editor, Cherry Jones, decides to entrust the fact-checking of a piece so important that she says it could be her “legacy” to him. Bobby Cannavale emerges as the kind of street-smart, patronizing writer who might evoke images of Jimmy Breslin or Pete Hamill or even Norman Mailer.

The rookie struggles to wrest control of the story from the writer, who clearly has little use or respect for him. Meanwhile, the editor gamely tries to get the piece published on time. That is the entire cast: three extremely well-crafted characters, each with an angle of his or her own.

Recognizing the performers from their own work, journalists will no doubt smile — and squirm — as they see themselves in these parts. And the lesser people in the theater can happily sit back and appreciate the superb acting.

How much is the audience expected to accept? Could we reasonably expect to see a fact-checker fly across the country (on his own nickel, no less) to confront the author? Stretching reality further, the fact-checker’s boss then follows him out there to try to restore order and meet a stressful deadline. I’ve worked for decades in the media ecosystem and never heard of this happening — but that’s just me.

This show has come along in a sweet spot of our popular culture. The profession of journalism is under siege. The President of the United States is determined to use the media as a prop in his all-out culture war — and then declare himself the winner.

His strategy is as clear as it is timeless: capitalize on journalism’s lousy public image to divide and conquer. All that’s missing from this picture in 2018 is a retelling of the Nixon administration’s greatest hits, complete with Spiro Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of nihilism” and defense of the Silent Majority.

“The Lifespan of a Fact” neatly counters the President bleating about “fake news” and “the enemy of the people.” It is a production for its times.