By John Lyle Belden
In the early 2000s, by annual average there was a suicide in Las Vegas roughly every 26 hours. However I feel about this, I can be confident it is true, as someone checked. The serious and fraught topic of self-harm is what gives the play “The Lifespan of a Fact” its riveting emotional heft, but at its core is the principle noted in the previous sentence.
This drama – with hilarious comic moments to get through the serious context – by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell, is presented by American Lives Theatre, directed by Chris Saunders, at the Phoenix Theatre. It is based on a book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal detailing their struggle with D’Agata’s 2010 essay in The Believer magazine.
Editor Emily Penrose (Eva Patton) calls upon intern Jim Fingal (Joe Wagner), a recent Harvard graduate, to fact-check the piece by D’Agata (Lukas Felix Schooler), which is ready to go to print in just a few days. Fingal is told to give it his best effort, as the writer is known to take liberties with details. “Give it the ‘full Jim’,” Penrose instructs, and boy, does she get it.
The essay, focusing on a teenager’s suicide – jumping from the city’s tallest casino tower – to comment on the greater culture of Las Vegas, is riddled with factual errors, starting with the lead paragraph. While the death itself is well-documented, various added details are wrong. Penrose tells Fingal to bring them up directly to D’Agata, which he does by flying out to visit his Vegas apartment.
At first the altered “facts” are trivial, inspiring much of the humor. When Penrose is alerted to one that could get the magazine in legal trouble, she, too, travels from to New York to Nevada, just hours before the presses in Illinois roll for national distribution.
I must note my own bias here. I am an experienced journalist, including a university Journalism degree and experience at four daily newspapers (most recently the Daily Reporter in Greenfield, Ind.). In my mind there was no question that D’Agata was in the wrong with the initial version of the essay. Deviations from the truth, even in details having nothing to do with the core event, and especially easy to confirm and debunk, hurt the credibility of not only the periodical and the writer, but also the valid point of the story itself.
However, D’Agata argues, this isn’t a news “article” but a non-fiction “essay,” and “the wrong facts get in the way of the story.” He justifies altering events for his writing’s symmetry, or because the wording doesn’t “sing” to him otherwise. What could appear as indulging in ego he sees as a higher calling to a deeper “truth.” Having gone to extensive research, interviews, and discussions with the deceased’s family, he feels too personally invested to submit to the smallest correction or alteration.
For his part, Fingal appears absurdly nit-picky – what color were the bricks, how many strip clubs were there? But what we would call “white lies” also contain more misleading falsities, and if any were detected by a reader, he notes, that same person could decry the whole essay as a “hoax” on social media.
Penrose understands the writer isn’t, strictly speaking, a journalist, and her magazine is more literary than hard-news, but she insists on having standards. Still – the writing was so good she senses this could be a major milestone for the publication, if she could just get everyone in agreement on the actual text.
Patton, Wagner and Schooler deliver riveting, top of their game, performances. No winks at the audience, this is serious business involving real people and real incidents (both the publication of the essay and the death that inspired it). The humor is purely situational, the absurd that comes with doing one’s job, this time with higher stakes.
“Trigger Warning” is very much applicable here, if you hadn’t guessed by the subject matter. The play contains the most heart-wrenching moment of silence, and an ending that lets no one off the hook.
The best-selling 2012 book, also called “The Lifespan of a Fact,” is still available in stores and online. The essay in question is still online in its checked, edited, and published form (Note: intensive discussion and description of suicide) here.