Fake news! Alternate facts! You can’t avoid thinking about today’s buzzwords when you see The Lifespan of a Fact.
In the new play, at Studio 54, Daniel Radcliffe plays a young intern assigned by a magazine editor-in-chief (Cherry Jones) to fact-check an eloquent story about a teenage suicide in Las Vegas written by a well-known author (Bobby Cannavale). The fact-checker discovers that the writer has taken too many liberties with actual facts; the writer believes he is not governed by journalistic standards because he has written an essay, a piece of nonfiction literature. The source of the play, written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell, is the real-life interaction from more than a decade ago between author John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, the man who fact-checked his story; together they published a version of their punchy back-and-forth emails in a 2012 book they titled The Lifespan of a Fact.
We caught up separately with Radcliffe and Cannavale when the production was still in rehearsal. They both said they had been waiting for the right opportunity to return to Broadway — and The Lifespan of a Fact proved to be the draw.
“I was very excited about this play because it is about ideas and it is also very, very funny,” says Radcliffe. “The dialogue is incredibly snappy and fun, and the topic is really challenging and interesting.” The 29-year-old English actor has by now established himself as a star with a charismatic stage presence; he last appeared on Broadway in the acclaimed 2014 revival of The Cripple of Inishman. “Some of my favorite memories of going to the theatre growing up are debating the play with my mum and dad while driving home afterward,” he recalls. “We would have a big conversation about what we saw — what it was about, who was right, and whose side we were on. This play should hopefully provoke a really healthy debate. The issue of truth versus fact is not something that comes up in people’s lives consciously every day, but, actually, once you start really examining it, you certainly see that it affects everyone,” he adds. “Everyone has a different relationship to the truth and to memory.”
Cannavale, who received a Tony nomination in 2007 for his Broadway debut in Mauritius, and a second in 2011 for The Motherfucker With the Hat, reports that both Radcliffe and two-time Tony winner Jones were already on board when he was sent the script of The Lifespan of a Fact. “I thought if they like it, it has got to be good. I’ve been a friend of Cherry’s for 25 years or so but I’ve never had the chance to work with her. Then I read the play. It was like a speeding train, it just took me with it,” he says. “I thought it was funny and I thought it was emblematic of the conversations that we are having in the culture right now. The story provoked so many thoughts — about news and facts, fiction and truth, fake news and the real news.”
Just weeks ago, the two actors experienced an example of how flexible truth can be when they met their characters’ real-life counterparts, D’Agata and Fingal, in person for the first time. In much the same way that some facts in the original piece written by D’Agata underwent transformation, the actors became aware that actual details about the writer and the fact-checker had been embellished as well. “I think when they had the idea to write the book — well, for the book to be interesting — I think they invented a much more antagonistic relationship with each other than was probably true in reality,” says Radcliffe. Cannavale concurs: “They’d be the first ones to admit that they weren’t really at each other’s throats. They both recognized that they were, in their own words, nerds, and they sort of grooved on each other. They were both good with language. What they created made for better drama.”
The play, of course, ratchets this drama a up notch or two. “It has evolved to the point where I am really playing a version of John D’Agata that is definitely not John D’Agata,” says Cannavale. “It’s like Being John Malkovich or something! It is this hyperdramatized version of these two guys and the experience that they had.” Says Radcliffe, “The play uses the book’s discussion and a lot of the specific points that Jim raises in fact-checking John’s essay, and reframes them in a very fictional, probably much more dramatic, context than it was in real life.”
Fingal and D’Agata may be friends in real life, but Radcliffe and Cannavale are embracing their characters’ antagonistic positions in a way that will make for a lively confrontation on stage. “I’ve fallen in love with my character, Jim, and his point of view,” says Radcliffe. “I do really think there is something noble and essential about fact-checking. I was surprised to learn that in recent years not every book or article is fact-checked. There is something impressive about people who are dedicated to finding a kind of neutral, unbiased, objective truth in something; it seems like an impossible job.” Referring to Jim’s copious 130 pages of fact-checking notes for a 15-page essay, the actor adds: “OK, he surely didn’t need to do all this, but it makes a fine character in the play because he is completely uncompromising. I have a lot of respect for his diligence, his intelligence, and the idea that you don’t have to tell half-truths to write something beautiful, that truth is beautiful in and of itself.”
At the opposite end, Cannavale makes a case for the writer, John: “He’s a well-respected writer, a professor at the University of Iowa, which is a prestigious university for writing. He can be a polarizing figure, but he’s also very much an essayist in the most classical sense of the word. John’s very adamant about that. These arguments are really to the core for him, about what kind of liberties a writer of his style can, should, and will take with a nonfiction subject. I find him to be a compelling person because he believes in his arguments. That’s always something that is really fun and exciting to play — someone who believes in their cause,” the actor continues. “He’s under attack here. I mean, this is an intern who is fact-checking him and he’s a guy who has been published for a long time and has won all kinds of awards. He does have an attitude about it, certainly, but he also, like I said, believes in his arguments right to the very end.”
“I think at first he is just very irritated by my character,” says Radcliffe, who takes a more conceding approach toward the conflict. “Over the course of the play John probably comes to have a grudging respect for Jim’s intelligence and drive and relentlessness, but I don’t think he ever comes around to really liking him,” says the actor. “It is an adversarial relationship, but I actually think that Jim can see the side of John’s writing that is art and where art sometimes has to diverge from being completely factually accurate.”
The central argument of the piece, Cannavale notes, is something that echoes in daily conversations today: “Who do we trust for our information, what is real and what is not?” Both actors say we shouldn’t expect any pat answers from The Lifespan of a Fact. “The point of the play, which the editor — the role that Cherry plays — talks about is how we survive on the stories that we tell about ourselves. There are many different ways to tell a story and many different versions of the same story, it depends on who’s telling it. And sometimes you have to tell it in a certain way in order to get to an emotional truth.”