When the truth gets in the way

Lantern Theater Company presents The Lifespan of a Fact

3 minute read
Fayle tries to explain something to Peakes, who looks indignant. Between them, a fridge with a hand-drawn paper diagram on it
Trevor William Fayle (left) and Ian Merrill Peakes in the Lantern’s ‘The Lifespan of a Fact.’ (Photo by Mark Garvin.)

The Lifespan of a Fact, an engaging play receiving its Philadelphia premiere from Lantern Theater Company, considers the chasm between journalistic integrity and artistic license. Or, as John D’Agata might say, it investigates the differences between accuracy and truth.

To D’Agata (Ian Merrill Peakes), an essayist with a distinctive prose style and a prickly personality, the latter needn't be beholden to the former. The essence of the story and the reason for telling it take precedence over any piddling verifiable facts.

Does it matter, then, if D’Agata writes that Las Vegas has 34 licensed strip clubs, if the actual number is somewhere between 29 and 31? (No, 34 sounds better.) Or that a woman who won a game of tic-tac-toe against a chicken is described as being from Mississippi, even if she’d lived in Nevada for years by the time the game took place? She’s still from Mississippi, after all, so call it a half-truth.

Based on true events

Based on actual events, The Lifespan of a Fact acts as an intriguing polemic in the era of alternative facts. Playwrights Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell crafted the script based on a book-length lyric essay by D’Agata and Jim Fingal, chronicling a seven-year effort to vet a story about a teenager’s death by suicide that D’Agata initially sold to Harper’s Magazine. It was ultimately published, with some corrections, in The Believer, a niche online literary journal.

Fingal, played here with spunk by Trevor William Fayle, emerges as defender of the unvarnished truth. An intern at an unnamed prestige publication in New York, he turns a rush job to confirm the veracity of D’Agata’s essay into a crusade against the gradually eroding value of the truth. Although the events depicted actually took place in the early 2000s, they are perhaps more relevant than ever in the wake of our post-Trump news cycle.

But The Lifespan of a Fact isn’t a dry academic exercise. More than anything, it’s a comedy. The playwrighting team crafts a situation that finds Fingal arriving on the doorstep of D’Agata’s Vegas abode with a hundred-page spreadsheet of queries in hand, ready to hash out the intricacies of what can and cannot be authenticated. More than once, the fact-checking process comes to literal blows.

The ensuing action is more fun than what you’d encounter in the average newsroom. (Take it from someone with firsthand knowledge.) Yet as the play’s 85 minutes hurtle briskly toward their conclusion, I sometimes wished for more slapstick and dissertation. Fingal, D’Agata, and Emily Penrose (Joanna Liao), the magazine’s seen-it-all editor, function best when they’re in high dudgeon. They run out of steam when the authors turn them into mouthpieces who speechify on the greater journalistic good.

See for yourself

The preference for humor over hard news may also relate to Matt Pfeiffer’s high-octane production, which grinds to a halt whenever the play puts on a more serious mantle. The actors excel here in physical comedy and body language—a toss of wavy hair for Fayle, a drolly raised eyebrow for Peakes—but seem somewhat stilted when asked to argue the finer points of the matter. Liao lacks the gravitas and authority to convince as a hardened, world-weary executive editor, particularly in the current climate of austerity publishing.

Lantern’s physical production also falters. St. Stephen’s Theater, the company’s longtime venue, has an oddly angled stage that usually necessitates unit sets. Here, Dirk Durossette’s scenic design suggests neither a sleek Manhattan magazine office nor D’Agata’s down-market digs off the Sunset Strip. Amanda Jensen’s lighting is often distractingly low-key. The most effective element is the sound design by Chris Sannino, which takes subtle cues from the text—you can literally hear the desert winds whistling through D’Agata’s front door, a point of contention in Fingal’s vetting process.

To a veteran journalist like me, there’s little to argue about many of the points raised in this play. (Spoiler alert: facts do matter.) Theater, on the other hand, is proudly subjective. You can see The Lifespan of a Fact and decide for yourself whether I’m right, or wrong, or somewhere in the middle.

What, When, Where

The Lifespan of a Fact. By Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell; directed by Matt Pfeiffer. $25-$42. Through March 5, 2023, at the Lantern’s St. Stephen’s Theater, 923 Ludlow Street, Philadelphia. (215) 829-0395 or lanterntheater.org.


Masks are required inside the theater.

The performance space is accessible only by stairs.

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