Pioneer Theatre’s “Lifespan of a Fact” examines inconvenient truths

Sun Nov 03, 2019 at 10:09 am
By Catherine Reese Newton
Constance Macy, Ben Cherry, and John Kroft star in The Lifespan of a Fact at Pioneer Theatre Company.

Pioneer Theatre Company is advertising The Lifespan of a Fact as “a showdown between truth and fiction.” Like most things in this 90-minute verbal tennis match, which opened a two-week run Friday night, the reality isn’t so straightforward.

The Lifespan of a Fact comes to Salt Lake City a year after the play made a brief but well-received premiere on Broadway. 

The play opens with magazine editor Emily Penrose (Constance Macy) pulling her planned cover story in favor of a blockbuster essay by big-shot writer John (Ben Cherry). She instructs fresh-out-of-Harvard assistan Jim (John Kroft) to run a quick fact check on it. All she’s looking for, she repeatedly reminds Jim and the audience, is “a good-faith effort” that will protect the magazine from legal liability. The presses will roll in five days. But Jim has questions.  Many questions.

Sometimes John and Jim are arguing two sides of the same coin. John bristles when Jim points out a one-second discrepancy; Jim can’t believe John is unwilling to budge on such a small but easily verified detail. At other times, the disagreement is metaphysical: Is it ever OK to embellish facts to illuminate a greater truth? Can a reader trust anything in a story that gets even one detail wrong? (By the time Jim challenges John’s description of the snacks he ate with a key source, you might concede that John has a point.) Meanwhile, the pragmatic Emily is calculating the margin of error she will accept.

To the actors’ credit, these prickly characters emerge as human and likable. Emily isn’t warm, exactly, but well-timed hitches in Macy’s delivery hint at why the essay matters to her. Kroft’s dogged earnestness demands we take the idealistic Jim seriously. And Cherry’s self-deprecating smirk softens John’s arrogance, somehow.

Playwrights Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell adapted their play from John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s book of the same name. The  ook in turn was loosely based on what happened when Fingal was assigned to fact-check D’Agata’s article — sorry, essay — exploring the cultural context of a Las Vegas teen’s suicide.

Director Wes Grantom keeps the action moving briskly. The set and sound design by Jo Winiarski and Jennifer Jackson, respectively, show us the characters’ electronic communications in real time — superfluous, perhaps, but amusing nonetheless.

The Lifespan of a Fact is ostensibly a comedy, and the actors deliver their mordantly funny lines with superb timing. But we’re living in an age when “fact” is a loaded word, and John’s declaration that “I’m not interested in accuracy, I’m interested in truth” landed only scattered laughs Friday night. Sometimes the truth hurts.

The Lifespan of a Fact runs through November 16.; 801-581-6961

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