THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT (Lantern): Conveying a larger truth

Trevor William Fayle, Joanna Liao, and Ian Merrill Peakes in Lantern Theater Company’s Philadelphia premiere production of The Lifespan of a Fact by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell, directed by Matt Pfeiffer, on stage now through March 5, 2023.

In the political news in the past few years, the concern has been not with the lifespan of facts, but the lifespan of lies. The fact  (!?) of so many public liars and their dangerous fakes makes this play, The Lifespan of a Fact currently at the Lantern Theater, even more interesting and troubling now than when it premiered in 2018.

The Lifespan of a Fact is based on a true (?!) story about a famous writer whose essay for a famous magazine headed by a famous editor is fact-checked by an obnoxious young nobody and found wanting.  

The essay is about the suicide of a teenage boy, and one of the questions the play asks is whether the literary merit of a moving and well-told story is  more truthful than  the journalistic inquiry into what brand of crackers he ate on that fatal day. 

This raises additional implied questions about the essential fraudulence of theater: acting is essentially lying to the public for the sake of conveying a larger truth.

Well, actually, if truth (!?) be told, the real-life author John D’Agata wasn’t famous  nor was the magazine he wrote for, but for theatrical purposes (?!) he’s famous now. D’Agata and the real-life fact-checker, Jim Fingal, got into a series of disputes and squabbles and those resulted in a jointly authored book. Then three unknown playwrights—Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gorden Farrell—wrote this play, The Lifespan of a Fact, based on the D’Agata/Fingal book.  Kind of a Super Bowl of provenance and acknowledgements. 

When I saw the play on Broadway (with a dream cast of Bobby Cannavale, Daniel Radcliffe and Cherry Jones), the dynamic was different than it is at the Lantern. 

Joanna Liao as the editor lacks the magisterial authority of a powerful editor, but one could argue that her frazzled desperation to get this job done and meet her Monday morning deadline is plausible. 

As the famous author, Ian Merrill Peakes is a sympathetic and persuasive advocate for literary style and existential truth, but the role calls for abrasive swagger as well as explosive exasperation. 

All the abrasiveness is located in Trevor William Fayle’s fact-checker whose obsessive need to verify for accuracy lacks all empathy; he has no understanding of human feelings or of the power of language, and is performance of the role strikes only one note; we should get glimpses of the driving ambition of an intern who wants a job.

Crucially, we see the validity of both sides of the argument and this production, under Matt Pfeiffer’s direction, leaves us with the necessary and unsettling ambivalence.

[Lantern Theater Company at St Stephan’s Theater, 923 Ludlow St] February 2-March 5, 2023;

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