When does a fact become a fact?
It’s not as easy a question as you might think, given that the language we use to describe and communicate facts is inevitably subjective. Additionally, the relationship between truth and storytelling is complex. Consider the recent case of comedian-storyteller Hasan Minhaj, who was recently exposed. In The New Yorker He was forced to admit that some of his stories, including one about being thrown into a car by a police officer, were not actually true.
Minhaj’s response was that he was telling the “emotional truth,” which is not the same as the actual truth. You could call this a sort of defense of the storyteller; It’s an argument that too much cold-blooded fact-checking inevitably ruins anyone’s ability to convey a compelling narrative or comedy routine. And that’s exactly what the gonzo writer-character named John D’Agata (PJ Powers) features in Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell’s 2018 Broadway debate play “The Lifespan of a Fact,” starring Daniel Radcliffe. the claim he maintains.
The 90-minute show has a simple three-character structure. In one corner is D’Agata, the author of a piece about a suicidal boy who jumped from the top of a Las Vegas hotel. In the other corner is intern Jim Fingal (Alex Benito Rodriguez), tasked with validating D’Agata’s manifold liberties in the service of a powerful story. In the middle of the ring is Emily Penrose (Juliet Hart), the editor of the magazine that published the article. In the first episode of the show, you mostly learn about Jim’s obsessive fact-checking skills, including getting on a plane to Las Vegas, where D’Agata lives. In the last few minutes, thanks to Emily’s absurd arrival in Las Vegas, there’s a bit of will-they-or-won’t-they tension, even as the deadline looms.
I must point out that all of this is largely based on fact. D’Agata really wrote such a work (“What happens there?”) and Fingal indeed checked the accuracy of this. Actually (I’ll be here all week), Harper’s Magazine they even published some of their email exchanges based on the book that inspired this game.
Do you understand all this? No one would confuse “Lifespan” with a great American play; too schematic for that. But this is a clever form of entertainment designed to spark conversation over a post-show drink. Of course, this is an interesting topic for us journalists; But those of us who prefer newspapers to magazines and talk shows are definitely in Jim’s column. But D’Agata is right when he points out that fact-checking can indeed be taken to extremes, to the point where no one can say anything for sure. If you’re into that stuff, you might enjoy this show.
But TimeLine’s production is uneven. Both Powers and Rodriguez are talented verbal brawlers onstage, and it’s a lot of fun to watch in this intimate setting. Powers is particularly rich, intriguing, and justifiably empathetic. But director Mechelle Moe’s production lacks sufficient motivation and dramatic tension; The night I was there, the pace was slow and energy was lacking at times. But much of this stems from a script determined to stoke controversy rather than deliver real, nuanced characters.
Frankly, the way this thing is written requires all three actors to insist on their integrity, no matter the cost. Of course, these discussions in media organizations do not develop this way in real life. Strong viewpoints are common, but most fact-conscious writers welcome fact-checkers who work to save them from their own mistakes. Great storytelling can survive an insistence on accuracy. And for that matter, it can be great comedy, too.
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Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “The Life of a Truth” (2.5 stars)
When: until December 23
Where: TimeLine Theater Company, 615 W. Wellington Ave.
Working time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Tickets: $52-$72 at 773-281-8463 and www.timelinetheatre.com