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Theater Review: Lifespan of a Fact

Inger Tudor and Jonah Robinson in Lifespan of a Fact. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Fact-checking is the ultimate behind-the-scenes activity. Writers write, publishers publish, and in between are a number of necessary activities, including editing, art direction and design, and fact checking. Lifespan of a Fact catapults fact-checking into the spotlight.

Facts can be slippery things. How tall is a building? How many people died on a particular day in a particular city of a particular cause? What’s your source, and how do you mediate between conflicting sources and facts?

Stories, too, can be slippery. If a certain number provides better symmetry than the actual, factual number, is it acceptable to take that liberty? When an author has powerful points to make, is tweaking facts justified to underscore those points? At what point does non-fiction slide into fiction?

Lifespan of a Fact, newly opened at the Fountain Theatre, is an intellectual battle between fact and story that’s so compelling that you might never look at an essay the same way again. It pits accuracy against “truth” in entertaining and thought-provoking ways that are beautifully staged by director Simon Levy, in a perfectly designed set by Joel Daavid.

Jim Fingal (Jonah Robinson) is a recent Harvard grad and eager to make that fact known. He mentions it regularly, carries a Harvard-branded binder and has a Harvard sticker on his laptop. The editor of the magazine where he’s interning, Emily Penrose (Inger Tudor), needs someone to fact-check an article submitted by respected writer John D’Agata (Ron Bottitta). Her magazine’s budget has been cut and she no longer has a dedicated fact-checking department; she must use whoever is available in the Editorial department. Enter Jim, tripping over his own backpack and gushing about how thrilled he is to play a role in John D’Agata’s work.


Ron Bottitta in Lifespan of a Fact. Photo by Jenny Graham.


Emily expresses to Jim that the piece John has written could be life-changing. It portrays the underside of being human in Las Vegas, a city of desperation with the suicide of a 16-year-old as its centerpiece. She asks Jim to be rigorous in his fact-checking review.

Despite a tight deadline, Jim is eager to impress, even cocky in his belief that he can get the job done. By the next day, he’s not so sure. He identifies “unresolved facts” throughout John’s article. She urges him to work it out with the writer, and advises him to treat the great man with respect.

John and Jim begin their fact-versus-story debate. John believes that stories are the way people organize their lives and give them meaning, that the right story at the right time can change the way people view their own lives. He calls young Jim “poison to the creative process.” He tells him that there’s a world of facts to choose from and that he needs to see the nuance.

Nuance is not Jim’s strong suit. He considers facts non-negotiable and calls what John has done “negligence.” He develops a 130-page list of questionable facts—about a 15-page article. And he stands firm, essentially insisting that a point made with a falsehood is not a point worth making.

It’s egomaniac against compulsive, and Emily must intervene so deadline is made and her legacy assured. This against the backdrop of a dying magazine business, with a printer in Kankakee, Illinois waiting to go into overtime charges if the piece isn’t delivered by 8:00am Monday morning. The tension is compounded by exceptional acting. Robinson’s jumpy dedication is the perfect foil fit Bottitta’s overwhelming arrogance and Tudor personifies the tightly wound boss losing control. As time runs out, the stakes rise, making this an edge-of-the-seat thriller…about fact-checking.


Lifespan of a Fact is at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., through April 2, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm, Sundays at 2:00pm and Mondays at 8:00pm. (dark Feb. 20 and March 13). Tickets are $25-45 and can be purchased here. At Sunday matinees, masks are required; at all other performances masks are recommended.


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Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Theatre West.

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