Every so often, a play so resonates with its time that the audience can’t stop thinking and talking about it for days afterwards. “The Lifespan of a Fact,” at the Gloucester Stage Theatre through Sept. 22, is such a production, and theatergoers should flock to see it for its thought-provoking, razor-sharp script and spot-on production under the direction of Newtonian Sam Weisman.
The premise is simple enough. It is three days before a magazine’s publication deadline. Emily Penrose (Lindsay Crouse), its ambitious and demanding editor-in-chief, has just received a cutting-edge story about a teenager who committed suicide by jumping off the roof of a Las Vegas casino. She wants to bump the planned cover story (a humdrum about congressional wives) and replace it with this for two reasons: to raise the prestigious but stodgy magazine’s profile (and boost sales) and to safeguard her job. First, however it must undergo fact-checking and there is only the weekend to do it.
Enter Jim Fingal (Derek Speedy, who really did just graduate from Harvard University), a young, equally ambitious intern and recent Harvard grad. He attacks his assignment like the future of journalism depends on it. His dogged tenacity would impress Sam Spade. Before long, he has amassed binders and exhibits that look more like a Perry Mason criminal trial notebook than fact-checking for a 13-page essay.
The ticking clock does not diminish Fingal’s resolve to dot every i and cross every t. His phone attempts to clear up inaccuracies with the author, John D’Agata (Mickey Solis) only get him a lecture on the difference between an “essay” (where D’Agata believes there’s wiggle room to alter the facts to fit the “rhythm” of the writing) and an “article” (which Fingal believes embodies the holy journalistic trinity of accuracy, truth and integrity).
D’Agata sees the world as gray. By calling his piece an essay, he assumes he has free rein to cast a wide net around the facts. “You have to stop treating me like a journalist. I am an essayist. I nudge the facts,” he declares. To Fingal, there is a bright line between black and white. Every discrepancy, no matter how trivial, is a journalistic capital offense. “I won’t alter the facts to fit some music you hear in your head,” he parries.
Penrose watches Fingal’s progress (or lack thereof) via a shared drive and her anxiety increases as the hours until publication decrease. When D’Agata calls her from his Las Vegas home to inform her that her fact-checker is asleep on his couch, she drops her laissez-faire attitude and catches the red-eye out there to literally take these two bulls by their horns.
By the time she arrives, the groundwork has been laid for the play’s second half, where the characters’ personalities, motives and principles clash. Their divergent positions about whether the piece as written should be published reflect the fault lines of their interests: creative freedom (D’Agata), commercial value (Penrose) and journalistic integrity/accuracy (Fingal). Their diatribes are thunderous and run the gamut from comic to passionate to preaching. These interchanges are the meat of the production and the questions raised are the stuff that will swirl long after the curtain has come down.
Is there such a creature, for example, as “creative fiction?” Where is the line between editing and fact-checking? Which dictates: story or accuracy? Does “not correct” equal “wrong?” What constitutes “good faith effort?” Are facts negotiable?
Weisman’s direction equally milks the comic and the profound and the set and sound lend a slick contemporary feel. The three actors remain in character throughout the 90-minute intermission-less performance. Speedy, as Fingal, quietly controls the pace as his nerdy fact-finder eventually bares his teeth and shows his nettle. His ease and grace on stage is reminiscent of Matt Damon’s nuanced performance in “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Solis is all bristle and sinew as D’Agata, wildly and combatively confrontational. Crouse, the weakest link among the trio, plays Penrose as strident but without depth. It’s hard to tell whether this is intentional, and her character suffers credibility as a result.
At the play’s end, the trio may not have reached consensus about whether the essay should be published, but they have managed something that is sorely lacking in today’s polarized and venomous environment: they have listened to each other, they have understood each other, and they have respectfully agreed to disagree. What a concept.