The Lifespan of a Fact
Colin Smith as John D’Agata, Sheri S. Herren as Emily Penrose, and Iván Carlo as Jim Fingal star in The Lifespan of a Fact at Keegan Theatre; Credit: Cameron Whitman Photography

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It is a Wednesday at the offices of a prestigious, storied, and yet unnamed American magazine. Editor Emily Penrose (Sheri S. Herren) summons intern Jim Fingal (Iván Carlo) to her desk. Acclaimed essayist John D’Agata (Colin Smith) has submitted a piece about the 2002 suicide of 16-year-old Levi Presley in Las Vegas, but D’Agata has a reputation for “taking liberties with the facts” and Penrose wants Fingal to fact check the story in time for a Monday morning deadline; otherwise she will be forced to run a more banal story about congressional spouses.

Both editor and fact-checker are as convinced as the author of the brilliance and impact of the essay, but by Thursday, Fingal, eager to prove himself, has produced a 130-page spreadsheet listing facts that cannot be confirmed by public records or other journalistic accounts. On Penrose’s recommendation, Fingal contacts D’Agata, who arrogantly refuses to change a word.

By Sunday morning, the intern is at the door of the author’s house in Las Vegas, and the editor is catching a flight to see what she can do to save the issue as planned.

These are the facts: In 2003, Harper’s Magazine commissioned real-life essayist John D’Agata to write an essay on Levi Presley’s death only to reject it over disagreements about D’Agata’s approach. Two years later, The Believer offered to publish it, assigning Fingal as the fact-checker. It was not until 2010 that “What Happens Here” was published by the outlet. In 2012, the book The Lifespan of a Fact was published, containing the original essay, Fingal’s fact-checking, and the seven-year correspondence documenting their dispute over facts, truth, and literary style in nonfiction writing—or so it purports to be. The book is actually a literary reconstruction of their argument.

In September 2018, a stage adaptation by the playwriting team of Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell premiered on Broadway. The playwrights, in turn, took liberties in order to make it a workplace comedy for the stage, crafting the story so that, by the climax and denouement, the three principal characters are under the same roof. 

D’Agata’s arrogance stems from the belief that the essay is a distinct genre. He does not believe he is doing journalism so the evidential standards do not apply to him, even when his essays appear in publications alongside journalism. For the essayist, the chronology, geography, and relationships between facts can be altered in a more aesthetically satisfying manner if it reveals a more holistic “truth”: Suicide is just as integral to Las Vegas culture as the casinos, tourism, and how its industry has corrupted local politics and journalism. For aesthetics, D’Agata might use numbers as a recurring motif even if they have little factual basis. (Kareken, Murrell, and Farrell comment on D’Agata’s fondness for the number 9 by having Penrose use Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” as her ringtone.)

Herren plays Penrose (the play’s one fictitious character: the sort of composite who shows up in D’Agata’s essays) with the needed gravitas. She has a magazine to run, contingency plans to execute, and smart, talented people working for her who don’t see the larger picture, as she attempts to negotiate what corrections can be made. Smith is comically arrogant, cantankerous, and curmudgeonly as D’Agata, as he deals with Carlo’s excitable, data-driven Fingal, but the script also allows him to show D’Agata’s grief at the recent loss of his mother, and to describe with empathy his visit with Presley’s grieving parents.

Keegan Theatre’s scenic designer and lead carpenter Matthew J. Keenan has created the framework of a house, with wood beams and doors that give form even as they point to the absence of walls. Likewise the floor of the stage looks like the horizontal lines arranged in vertical columns: A newspaper or magazine page template for an article before the text and images have been filled in and sent to the printer. Projections designer Jeremy Bennett provides a montage of images seemingly repurposed from videos selling corporate office space, real estate, and other investment opportunities in Las Vegas, while Brandon Cook’s sound design largely reflects that aesthetic.

Director Susan Marie Rhea deftly handles the transition from workplace farce, complete with one liners and slapstick, to the ethics of telling the truth when the subject is suicide. But as much as Fingal’s character is represented as being comically overeager to check if the color of bricks, traffic patterns, and even the prepositions are factually correct, he is allowed to make the most prophetic comment on the role of facts: In the internet age, a critical mass of falsehoods, whether by accident, in pursuit of a holistic “truth,” or with malice, can launch a thousand conspiracy theorists. If this wasn’t apparent in January 2010 when The Believer published issue 68, it was clear by the time The Lifespan of a Fact premiered on Broadway and clearer now that the play is having its D.C. premiere. A ride on the L2 bus connects the Keegan Theatre to Comet Ping Pong, where, on Dec. 4, 2016, a Pizzagate-inspired gunman walked in to “self-investigate” a nonexistent basement and a 2.5-mile walk separates the Keegan from the Capitol where, on Jan. 6, 2021, QAnon believers and election deniers inspired an insurrection.

Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell’s The Lifespan of a Fact, directed by Susan Marie Rhea, runs through Feb. 25 at the Keegan Theatre. $50-$60.