A 16-year-old by the name of Levi Presley plunges to his death after leaping off the ledge of a tall casino hotel in Las Vegas, so an American voiceover tells us. That may appear to be the start of a horror story, but while the act and its repercussions most certainly are, The Lifespan of a Fact is anything but. Rather, it becomes a rib-tickling exploration of truth.
Emily Penrose (Nadine Garner) is the no nonsense editor of an eminent literary magazine. Seemingly always hyper busy and caught up in myriad phone calls and decision making, she is about to publish arguably the most important story in the publication’s history. All that remains is for the essay by John D’Agata (Steve Mouzakis) to be fact checked. For that task, Penrose engages an eager intern and recent graduate, Jim Fingal (Karl Richmond).
It is Wednesday and his deadline is the following Monday morning. Penrose tells Fingal this is an opportunity for him to further his career prospects and Fingal is intent on doing a thorough job. He has to look through 15 pages divided into nine sections. The alarm bells start ringing the following day when he sheepishly points out a number of discrepancies, notably a reference to lap dancing being banned in Sin City’s 34 strip clubs, coinciding with Levi’s death. His checking has revealed only 31 such establishments.
That is the beginning of a downward spiral, in which Fingal determines that as good as D’Agata’s work is, the latter has taken liberties. Fingal is a ferret, his rigour surprising Penrose and shocking D’Agata, who Penrose subsequently instructs Fingal to contact. D’Agata is initially dismissive of Fingal’s findings, but Fingal refuses to be intimidated, leading to a face-to-face encounter which calls into question the integrity of D’Agata’s entire work. Fingal produces no less than 130 pages of notes on the 15-page essay, proving that he is nothing if not a details guy.
The Lifespan of a Fact has been brilliantly written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell, based on the book of the same name by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. In other words, it is a retelling of Fingal and D’Agata’s real life experience, which results in an ideological battle. We are forced to question what is fact and what is fiction. Does the “rhythm” of a piece matter if it suits the narrative, but comes at the expense of truth? Surely compromising on accuracy makes even the most page-turning work fake news.
The play is very, very clever and phenomenally compelling. To just describe Fingal as a pedant is to do him an injustice, for that word should be preceded by another, namely “uber”. To use an apt expression, he’ll chase a rat up a drainpipe to get to the truth and that is where the humour in this 90-minuter without interval comes into play.
The words themselves are undoubtedly of critical importance, but it is also the delivery that distinguishes the production. Karl Richmond, who makes his MTC debut as Fingal, is magnificent as the super sleuth who becomes increasingly emboldened. He has a great sense of comic timing, with impeccable delivery.
Nadine Garner expertly parlays from the person in control to one who is given no choice but to pay close attention to what Fingal is telling her, at the same time navigating the ego that comes with acclaimed writer D’Agata. For his part, Steve Mouzakis channels indignance and frustration with aplomb as D’Agata’s “battle” with Fingal heightens. What we also see here is generational difference, as reflected by the approaches taken by Fingal and D’Agata.
The set design by Andrew Bailey is reflective of the new guard versus the old. I refer to the contrast between the gleaming Manhattan office tower where the magazine is housed (a chic modern desk and reflective backdrop is all it takes) and D’Agata’s tired, outdated home. The impact is all the greater because D’Agata’s “lair” is revealed gradually. At first, we only witness him in an old armchair before his kitchen and living room are revealed, as the set opens up and moves forward, and the tension heightens.
The Lifespan of a Fact, which benefits greatly from Petra Kalive’s incisive direction, is another masterwork from MTC. It was a hit on Broadway and is destined for similar acclaim here. It is playing at Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne until 3rd July, 2021.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- The Truth (MTC)
- A Room of One’s Own (Sentient Theatre) – theatre review
- Photograph 51 (MTC) – theatre review
Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.