A man with a beard stands left, his hands on his hips. Next to him is a woman who is facing off against a younger man, who stands right. Behind them is a wall covered with flowered wallpaper and a glimpse of a 1970s-style kitchen.
From left: PJ Powers, Juliet Hart, and Alex Benito Rodriguez in The Lifespan of a Fact at TimeLine Theatre Credit: Liz Lauren

The complicated backstory of the play The Lifespan of a Fact, now in its local premiere at TimeLine, reads like a series of “begats” out of the book of Genesis. 

Ready? Here goes. John D’Agata wrote an essay (not an article, as he stridently insists in the play) for Harper’s in 2003 about the 2002 suicide of Las Vegas teenager Levi Presley, who jumped to his death from the observation deck of the Stratosphere Hotel. The rejection of D’Agata’s essay by Harper’s due to fact-checking issues led to the piece being fact-checked again by intern Jim Fingal for the Believer, which eventually did publish it in 2010 under the title “What Happens There.” 

But that process also begat a 2012 book called The Lifespan of a Fact, laying out D’Agata and Fingal’s yearslong process, complete with their back-and-forth debates recreated on the page. The book begat the play, written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell. That play got a 2018 Broadway outing with a star-studded cast: Daniel Radcliffe played Fingal, Bobby Cannavale played D’Agata, and Cherry Jones played their (fictional) refereeing editor, Emily Penrose, from Optimist magazine (presumably not based on the publication put out by Optimist International, but on Harperʼs—at least judging from the covers displayed on the walls of Penrose’s office in the TimeLine production, which have typographic and design similarities with the real magazine).

Oh, and the play itself takes a few liberties with the story as outlined in the book. For starters, as noted above, Fingal wasn’t a fact-checker for Harper’s (or the Harper’s stand-in, in the case of the play).

The Lifespan of a Fact
Through 12/23: Wed-Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 4 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM; also Tue 11/21 2 PM, Fri 11/24 4 PM, and Thu 12/21 2 PM: no performances Wed-Thu 11/22-11/23; distanced performance Fri 11/17, open captions Fri 12/8 and Sat 12/9 4 PM, audio description Fri 12/15; TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington, 773-281-8463 ext.6, timelinetheatre.com, $57-$72

Got it? Do you need a few minutes to catch your breath, or have a drink? I understand.

Maybe it helps to point out that the tangled origins of the play don’t obscure the simple and ancient debate at the heart of the narrative conflict: do you go with the story that is most factually accurate or the one that is best told—and thus, presumably, most likely to affect readers?

D’Agata obviously isn’t the only writer to have the veracity of his work questioned: James Frey, Mike Daisey, and—most recently—Hasan Minhaj all come to mind. This is the sort of heady debate—creative license vs. fealty to the historical record—that is catnip for writers and performers alike, and the TimeLine production, directed by Mechelle Moe, lets the trio of actors playing D’Agata (PJ Powers), Fingal (Alex Benito Rodriguez), and Penrose (Juliet Hart) tear it up, taking turns standing on the soapbox of storytelling self-righteousness and stumbling over the ottomans of observable reality.

That may make it sound like a tendentious and preachy drag; far from it. It’s a fun, if somewhat facile, experience. Moe and her cast rev their engines and take it for a smooth 75-minute ride around Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s nicely detailed set, which in addition to Penrose’s sleek office, includes D’Agata’s stuck-in-the-70s Vegas home, which he moved to years earlier in order to care for his dying mother. (At one point, Powers’s D’Agata milks the story of her demise in order to make a point about emotional truth vs. objective facts.)

In fact (sorry, couldn’t resist), my main objection now to the play, which I saw (and enjoyed) in New York five years ago, is that our own historical timeline has rendered the debate around the specifics of D’Agata’s essay rather quaint. 

When Fingal and D’Agata first began slugging it out in notes in the working draft of “What Happens There,” the phrase “alternative facts” hadn’t entered the lexicon, and we certainly didn’t know the full extent to which social media can be weaponized by bad actors around the globe to propagandize large swathes of people (including people inclined to vote for lying fascists who flog the notion of “alternative facts,” and “fake news”). In light of that, does it really matter how many strip clubs were operating in Vegas on the day Presley took his fatal leap, or what color the bricks were where he landed?

That of course isn’t the fault of any of the creatives here, and if you go in prepared for a zesty portrait of the foibles of journalistic and artistic egos alike, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. And to be fair, it’s not as if the D’Agata we meet here is trying to practice yellow journalism in service of election interference or warmongering. He just wants to build his essay according to his own notions of what makes an interesting and elegant narrative. 

At one point, Powers’s D’Agata lays out the “countdown” effect he’s going for in the opening paragraphs: on the day Presley died, five other Las Vegans died of cancer, four from heart attacks, three from strokes, two by suicide by gunshot, and one by hanging. The problem, as Fingal lays it out, is that the last one cited by D’Agata wasn’t a hanging. On the day Presley died, another person died by jumping, according to the records at the coroner’s office. D’Agata’s callous response? “I want Levi’s death to be the only one from jumping that day.” OK, but what might the parents of the girl who died in that fall think about her being partially erased simply because her cause of death messes up the count? (In reality, D’Agata lost that debate: the Believer version noted that there was another death from jumping.)

D’Agata doesn’t view himself as a journalist at all, which is why he finds Fingal’s persnickety spreadsheet approach to his work so exasperating. “I’m not beholden to every detail,” he tells the younger man. Penrose, for her part, is torn between publishing a piece that she knows could win major buzz (if not awards), and the dangers of being outed for less-than-diligent attention to what happened there.

The notion of Fingal actually flying out to Vegas to confront D’Agata is itself an awkward but necessary fiction (showing people sitting in front of their laptops and arguing over minutiae via email would be pretty dull stuff, admittedly). So The Lifespan of a Fact is itself a piece of fiction based on fact about a nonfiction essay taking liberties with the facts. But the contrived in-person meeting does set up the Odd Couple energy between the two men. Rodriguez’s Fingal veers between reverence for the older man’s talent to disbelief at his cavalier disregard for inconvenient truths. Powers’s D’Agata tries to clue the intern into the realities of grabbing an audience’s attention, while also poignantly unpeeling the tension between his successful public persona (D’Agata really was praised by David Foster Wallace as “one of the most significant U.S. writers to emerge in the past few years”) and the reality of living a seemingly lonely life, stuck in both a literal and psychic desert.

If I tell you to see this show for the fine performances and to ignore the sometimes glib approach to the eternal debate at its heart, am I guilty of endorsing alternative facts myself? I don’t think so. The playwrights were pretty clear that they were borrowing the Fingal–D’Agata book as a spine for the story they wanted to tell. And it’s also true, as both D’Agata and Penrose point out several times in the play, that a rabid devotion to facts alone can obscure larger social truths, or simply run the risk of making readers check out altogether if the writer isn’t adroit enough to hook them early on. 

Yet still, even as I was chuckling over the intellectual debates and interpersonal squabbles in The Lifespan of a Fact, I felt a disquieting tug somewhere in my brain. With the fog of war descending again in the Middle East and the forces of fascism gearing up for another bite at the apple of our fragile republic, arguments over whether a teenage boy’s body hit the ground after falling for eight or nine seconds seem pretty irrelevant. Then again, who decides which facts matter, and which ones don’t? And what happens if we choose incorrectly?