IN 2003, AUTHOR John D’Agata completed a provocative and moving essay for The Believer about Las Vegas, its tourist culture, the city’s unusually high suicide rate, and a teenage boy named Levi Presley, who jumped to his death from the observation deck the Stratosphere Hotel (now called the Strat Hotel, Casino & SkyPod).
D’Agata’s editor handed the essay over to a young fact-checker named Jim Fingal, figuring it would be ready to print in a day or two, and all hell broke loose. The overly zealous Fingal flagged and questioned nearly every statement in the copy, prompting D’Agata to repeatedly defend a writer’s prerogative to play fast and loose with the facts, so long as the end justifies the means.
This tension between truth verses whatever it takes to tell a good story is at the heart of The Lifespan of a Fact, a serious, yet surprisingly funny, play inspired by D’Agata and Fingal’s published correspondence regarding the essay. (The fact-checking went on for seven years before the essay was finally published!)
On Jan. 13, The Lifespan of a Fact begins its run at Houston’s critically acclaimed 4th Wall Theatre, with Nick Farco as D’Agata, Jack Gereski as the earnest and exasperating Fingal, and Pamela Vogel as editor-in-chief Emily Penrose, a fictional character, who is a sort of composite of Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada and a mom attempting to parent two unruly teenage boys.
“She’s there to discipline,” says Vogel. “She’s there to get these two guys, D’Agata and Fingal, who are both artists, to stop arguing and pick one.” The “one” being either a verifiable fact, or D’Agata’s right as a creative writer to take poetic license with that fact.
Since its Broadway premiere in 2018, with Bobby Cannavale as D’Agata, Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe as Fingal and Cherry Jones as Penrose, The Lifespan of a Fact has been a hit with audiences, and feels even more relevant in today’s political climate, a time when “truthiness” and “alternative facts” are presented in place of journalistic integrity.
But D’Agata — who at one point declares, “I’m not interested in accuracy. I’m interested in truth!” — is no charlatan. All he wants to do tell a good story, and the play, like the book upon which it is based, gives equal weight to both D’Agata and Fingal’s arguments, leaving the audience to consider more than just one perspective. “You think we’re going to be easily on one side or the other, and we’re just not,” says Vogel. “D’Agata crosses the line just a little bit too much.”
At key moments in The Lifespan of a Fact, the characters read excerpts from D’Agata’s actual essay, titled “What Happens There,” which Vogel feels is a crucial point of reference for the audience. “The play doesn’t have answers,” says Vogel, “but it certainly brings up the question right at the heart of the question, because we get to hear the essay itself, and how effective it is. We get to judge it against several facts that come up in the course of the play.”
Nick Farco / photo by Jeff McMorrough
Pamela Vogel / photo by Jeff McMorrough