Debating the difference between fact and reality
By Jim Reiter
“I’m not interested in accuracy; I’m interested in truth.”
This statement forms the crux of the debate in The Lifespan of a Fact, now appearing at Colonial Players. It is uttered deep into the play by John D’Agata, a real-life writer whose essay, What Happens There, describes the suicide of a Las Vegas teen. It’s the self-interested view of a brilliant talent whose hackles are raised by Jim Fingal, another real-life character, a fresh-from-Harvard magazine intern assigned to fact-check the piece.
Originally written for Harper’s Magazine in 2003, the essay was rejected due to D’Agata’s non-journalistic approach. The Believer magazine accepted the piece but assigned young Fingal to vet the 15-page essay; he produced a 130-page spreadsheet of inaccuracies. A book later written by Fingal and D’Agata forms the basis of the play, which opened in 2018 on Broadway.
Don’t be fooled by the tragic subject matter; thanks to solid direction by Estelle Miller and three commendable performances, Colonial’s The Lifespan of a Fact is a funny and ultimately thought-provoking entertainment.
Driving the play is the head-to-head battle of wits between Tim Sayles as D’Agata and Matthew Rigby as Fingal. Sayles gives D’Agata the grizzled, almost laconic persona we’d expect from a veteran essayist whose livelihood is made by his use of words and ideas. Rigby’s Fingal is the perfect counter, animated and picky, finding a touch of delight in every inaccuracy he uncovers. The play adds a fictional character, Emily Penrose, the editor of a failing New York City-based magazine that desperately needs the injection of respect and circulation that a virtuoso story might provide. As Penrose, Mary Rogers nicely balances the serious authority of a magazine editor on a tight deadline with the humor she needs to referee — babysit? — her two charges.
Set designer Edd Miller divides Colonial’s in-the-round space into two, separated by a low barrier, with about a third dedicated to Penrose’s New York City office, which opens the show, and the remainder to D’Agata’s Las Vegas home, full of floral prints and old furniture because he shared it with his mother while caring for her before she died.
With so much expository action happening in the office at one end of Colonial’s rectangular stage, the setup becomes a bit irksome to audience members having to crane their necks for so long, though director Miller abates the situation by keeping her actors moving. It’s also unfortunate that the lighting in that area looks no different than that of D’Agata’s home; a New York City office should be almost irritatingly bright with fluorescence. Two other nitpicks: Both Penrose’s wicker desk chair and her costume for the office scene are more likely to be found on a suburban patio than the New York office of a high-end magazine.
Fortunately, the bulk of the show takes place in D’Agata’s appropriately appointed home, and it is here that Miller, the actors and the crew hit their collective stride. Lighting is perfect for a home; costumes are just right, especially Sayle’s shorts and bathrobe, the official uniform of every writer working from home. Miller again keeps the three moving, using every part of that section of the stage, and every movement has a purpose. Rogers effectively displays the ethical dilemma facing Penrose as she, with a deadline looming, must decide whether the essay will run or be replaced by a far duller piece. Sayles and Rigby come out of their figurative corners like two boxers throwing opposing philosophies rather than punches.
Individually, the performances of Sayles, Rigby, and Rogers are engaging; together, they are captivating. They, and Miller, know better than to play comedy for laughs, nor to overplay the passion of a debate. Therefore, both come naturally. The result is a 95-minute production (no intermission) that seems shorter because of its pace and humor, and its engrossing debate about what it means to seek, and define, the truth.
The Lifespan of a Fact runs ThFSa 8pm, Su 2pm, thru Nov. 12, The Colonial Players Theater, Annapolis, $23, RSVP: 410-268-7373 or www.thecolonialplayers.org. Note: Masks are optional for all performances but required for shows on Nov. 6 & 11. Eight shows will be live-streamed.