This preview article originally appeared in The Star & Wave newspaper on Wednesday, August 31, 2022.
“The Lifespan of a Fact” at Cape May Stage Explores “Write” and Wrong
The production premiered on Broadway at Studio 54 in 2018, drawing high praise for its cast and relevance to the times. “Brilliantly engaging,” The New York Times said of the fast-paced, thought-provoking comedy.
Ironically, a reviewer for The Times panned the pre-play book when it came out six years earlier. The writer was incensed by the literary license that the book’s co-author, John D’Agata, took in telling the story of a 16-year-old boy who jumped to his death from a towering casino hotel in Las Vegas.
Playwright David Murrell saw their fact-versus-fiction, head-butting as fodder for a play, and enlisted fellow playwrights Jeremy Kareken and Gordon Farrell to co-write a script with him.
“We saw it as an opportunity,” Kareken explained.“Anything that can make someone that angry has the makings of a great play.”
They were right. Three stars headlined the Broadway show: Bobby Cannavale as writer, John D’Agata; Daniel Radcliffe (a.k.a. Harry Potter) as fact-checker, Jim Fingal; and Cherry Jones as editor, Emily Penrose, a composite character who tries to bridge the great divide in their differences.
The production at Cape May Stage stars Bill Timoney as D’Agata, Isaac Josephthal as Fingal, and Marlena Lustik as Penrose. The play opens in the latter’s neat, well-ordered office in Manhattan as she rapturously reads D’Agata’s essay, and decides to substitute it for the lead piece scheduled to run in the next issue of her magazine, which will go to press in five days.
“This story is important,” she tells Fingal, who is hoping to land the quick-turnaround, fact-checking job to advance his career. “I’ve been here for who knows how long and I’ve seen that the right piece at the right time changes the way people look at events in their lives,” she says. “This is the right time.”
Hired on the spot, the bookish Harvard grad goes to great lengths to complete his assignment, including flying out, unannounced and uninvited, to D’Agata’s home in Las Vegas to reconcile scores of factual errors he’s found in the essay. Battle lines are quickly drawn when the overzealous, nit-picking fact-checker arrives at D’Agata’s door with 130 pages of corrections he thinks the writer should make in his 15-page piece. A combative yet comical war of wits and words ensues until Penrose joins the party to referee their standoff.
Timoney convincingly captures D’Agata’s arrogance and self-absorption. Likening himself to Cicero and Thoreau, be boasts to the intern, “I’m not interested in accuracy, I’m interested in Truth.”
“Facts have to be the final measure of truth,” counters the intern.
Josephthal is adept as Timoney’s foil and radiates his character’s nerdiness and earnestness as he crusades for the rightfulness of facts. His performance is especially impressive given that in real life he was called into rehearsals for the show two days after they started to replace an actor who came down with Covid.
Lustik plays the fair-minded arbiter in this ideological conflict. Ultimately, she must decide how far to go to appease the writer and how far to go to uphold journalistic standards. It’s entirely up to her whether the piece runs as is, edited, or at all. Much like people sitting in the audience at Cape May Stage, she is both judge and jury in these proceedings and is being asked to render a verdict.
“Though ‘The Lifespan of a Fact’ is hilariously funny, it is the most important play we are doing this season in terms of encouraging the audience to question long-held beliefs and look at the world with a fresh perspective,” explained Producing Artistic Director Roy Steinberg.
Both Lustik and Josephthal are familiar faces at Cape May Stage. Lustik has appeared in 10 productions there, including “The Lion in Winter,” “Other Desert Cities,” Steel Magnolias” and “Barefoot in the Park. She has also performed on and off Broadway.
Josephthal played King Henry II’s third son in the theater’s 2018 production of “The Lion in Winter.” He has also acted in several plays in the New York area, including “Public Enemy” and “Dogville.”
Timoney’s credits include roles on stage, movies and television. He appeared in the Broadway productions of the film, “Network,” and in “All the Way.” He also played a long-running part on ABC’s “All My Children” and was in “The Blacklist” and “Blue Bloods.” This is his first performance at Cape May Stage.