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Lifespan of a Fact (a review of the Fall 2018 play)

Image from Amazon.com

When I first heard about the Broadway making of the book Lifespan of a Fact, co-authored by John D’Agata, (Director and Professor in The University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program), and the opportunity for undergraduate students to travel to New York to see the play, I jumped at the chance. But I didn’t really know what it was that I was going to go see. The book was said to be about a series of emails between an essayist and a fact checker regarding a specific article that would hopefully appear in the next issue of the magazine. I struggled to wrap my head around how they could make a series of essays into a play that was New-York-Broadway-worthy.

The opening scene was set with a huge, stage-sized blue computer screen with animated Helvetica computer type dancing across the stage, and an omniscient voice to introduce the scene. Then the screens separated to reveal Emily, the Editor (played by Cherry Jones) interacting with the Copy Editor, or Fact-checker, Jim Fingal (played by Daniel Radcliffe). Later, the character of John D’Agata appeared as the writer of the article being fact-checked. Those three members made up the entire cast of “Lifespan of a Fact.”

Characters argued back and forth disputing “truth” versus “accuracy” as the character of John D’Agata insisted that it was more important for him to take poetic license in his nonfiction essay rather than to be entirely accurate in his descriptions. He’s an essayist, not a journalist after all! Thirty-four sounds better than thirty-one because of the diphthong versus the true vowel sound. A brick building, said to have been red, was actually brown, but looks red in just the right light as the sun goes down. Who’s right?

While there was a lot of comedy throughout, the play had a dramatic angle that surfaced toward the end. The key topic of the essay in question was about the suicide of a teenage boy, and other deaths and occurrences of that day in Las Vegas. Whether D’Agata’s fact-checked essay would ultimately still run in that day’s edition of the magazine hung in the balance.

After the play, the UI attendees had the opportunity to talk with the writers of the play, Jeremy Karaken and David Murrell, along with the real John D’Agata, author of the book Lifespan of a Fact, and the actor who played John D’Agata, Bobby Cannavale. The play writers pointed out that the play was not meant to and does not mirror the book; the book was merely their inspiration for the play. That said, there were, of course, elements that were true to the book.

The two D’Agata’s spoke about lines that you fall in love with, either in the delivery (acting), or in the writing. Bobby said that sometimes when you love a line too much, it has to go. John responded with something that really stood out to me as a writer. He said, “You know you’re writing something really great when you’re willing to cut out something you love.” To me, that speaks to a writer’s ability – and need – to continually grow in the craft.

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Note: This review was written in October 2018 after I attended the play with several other University of Iowa students. The play’s last performance was in January 2019. According to a Broadway Buzz article from December 2018, a limited national tour of this production is in the works. (The limited tour may have had some delays due to the pandemic, but if the Lifespan of a Fact tour comes to your area in the future, I highly recommend that you see it.)

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