Review: Broadway’s “The Lifespan of a Fact” Offers a Timely Reflection on Fake News

Also: "The Ferryman" is long but worthy.

A comedy about fact checking? Sounds hilarious, right? Well, it is! And it also happens to be extremely topical. After all, this is the era when Donald Trump blatantly makes things up and passes them off as truth, all while calling hard-working reporters who do dabble in facts “the enemy of the people” and proponents of “fake news.” What better time could there be for a dissection of fantasy vs. reality in the world of reporting, and the dangers of trying to get away with fudging it?

As a longtime journalist, I have found the process of fact-checking occasionally tedious, but always welcome, since the fact checkers’ aim is to do some extra research and nit-picking to make things better fleshed out. They are often fastidious people who obsess over every comma, and though they generally lurk in the shadows as unsung heroes, they are finally getting their due in The Lifespan of a Fact, a Broadway play based on the essay/book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal.

Daniel Radcliffe plays Fingal, the real-life intern who was assigned by editor Emily (Cherry Jones) to fact check a piece by D’Agata (Bobby Cannavale) about about the Las Vegas suicide of teenager Levi Presley. He’s shocked to find that D’Agata is not only a self-important sort who insists on calling his work an essay, not an article, but that he has no interest at all in being fact-checked, especially since he has blurred some of the details in the essay and thinks it’s perfectly okay to alter non-fiction to make it a better narrative. What’s more, he feels that the truth isn’t necessarily in an accumulation of accurate details, but in the larger picture that you can paint with some fanciful brush strokes of your own.

Fingal, who draws up charts and grills every possible participant to the point where scenes pass and he’s still working on the first sentence of the essay, doesn’t believe that facts should be negotiable. Emily, meanwhile, is somewhere between the two points of view, having assigned Fingl to “be my detective,” but also wanting to placate D’Agata, her main goal being to score this hot-topic article—sorry, essay—which will allegedly make her magazine sizzle with excitement. When Fingl generously tells her there’s about 82% truth to the essay, Emily’s response is that he should try to get it up to 90%, and that when people criticize five of the remaining 10%, she’ll have some defense ready to save face. More and more, Fingl starts to look like the voice of sanity here, in his own neurotic and unorthodox way.

Mostly set in D’Agata’s Las Vegas place, where the three converge for a fact-finding showdown, the play has the stellar actors sparring in surprisingly funny ways, as directed by Leigh Silverman. Radcliffe is a particular joy with his nerdy brio, as he tries to dig up the truth while not overly provoking his elders, but all three are in good form. To spin comic gold out of this topic provides a refreshing night of theater, and though the play is not as successful when it aims for more profundity, this is a worthy look into the art of double-checking—and that’s a fact.

A Three-Hour Tour de Force

Joan Marcus
Paddy Considine (standing) and the company of “The Ferryman.”

Clocking in at over three hours, The Ferryman, written by Jez Butterworth and directed by Sam Mendes, is pretty compelling stuff and clearly one of the theatrical events of the season. Set in 1981 in Northern Ireland, when hunger strikes are growing in opposition to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s policies, the play manages to be playful, confrontational, dramatic, eerie, romantic, and deeply political.

As the Carney household gets ready for the annual harvest, things are cheery and sometimes even raunchy, which leads to some group dances, lots of storytelling, and the adorable appearance of a rabbit, a goose, and a real live baby. But things get darker as we learn what happened to Seamus Carney at the hands of the IRA years ago, as his brother (Paddy Considine) and Seamus’s wife (Laura Donnelly) become mutually fascinated in his absence while also differing on how to handle the IRA operatives in their midst.

The writing in the first act might dawdle on a bit, but Mendes’ direction is strong throughout, and the 30-plus member cast—most of whom were in the original London production—are all startlingly good, from the grownups (also including Dearbhla Molloy, Fionnula Flanagan, and Dunkirk’s Tom Glynn-Carney) to the littlest kids. As they imbibe and emote around Rob Howell’s wooded set—with the longest stairway you might ever see—the result has a touch of Friel, a splash of O’Neill, a hint of Steinbeck, and lots of Butterworth, placing this way above the same playwright’s The River, though it’s not quite as sensationally heightened as his Jerusalem. But one thing is certain: You’ll gasp in the closing minutes, bloke.

Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.