Based on the 2012 book of the same name, and continuing at The Fountain Theatre in Hollywood through April 2, “The Lifespan of a Fact” dramatizes the real-life clash between seasoned essay writer John D’Agata (Ron Bottitta), who takes liberties with the truth, and intrepid young magazine fact-checker Jim Fingal (Jonah Robinson).
To what extent the “truth” of a story depends on its actual facts is debated between the two characters and arbitrated by magazine editor Emily Penrose (Inger Tudor). The intricacies of the debate and amusing lengths to which recent Harvard grad Jim goes in testing the accuracy of John’s essay—even within its first sentence—are enjoyable and intriguing.
Meanwhile, Emily is on a deadline so the work must be done within four days, including a weekend that finds Jim crashing John’s home in Las Vegas—the city where the teen subject of John’s essay had committed suicide by jumping off the Stratosphere Hotel.
The wood-paneled set is well conceived by Joel Daavid, with lighting by Alison Brummer, including updated midcentury modern furniture conjuring both Emily’s New York office and John’s Vegas home.
Scenic design is enhanced with creative video projection (designed by Nicholas Santiago) that not only digitally displays bookcases and window views but cleverly shows Jim’s and John’s initial email exchanges typed out as the characters compose them.
And prop designer Joyce Hutter must have had fun compiling the stacks of paper, folders and notebooks that Jim uses to document his fact-checking—and that’s not including the 130-line electronic spreadsheet of errors he shares with Emily.
The play thus remains engaging throughout its crisp 85 minutes. However, some aspects of character are given short shrift, raising elements that remain unexplored. Does Emily have someone she lost that accounts for her interest in John’s article, as Jim suspects? Who or what is in the picture on her desk? What exactly is the relationship between John and the parents of the boy who died?
Direction by Simon Levy might also have given Emily and John more gesture and movement at times to emphasize the passion behind their words. Without that, some lines—carefully honed by writers Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell—feel like they’re being recited rather than enacted.
Otherwise, though, Tudor is crystal clear as harried yet determined editor Emily, interested in making her mark by publishing John’s provocative essay. And Bottitta is sufficiently crotchety as John, though could at times be more threatening toward Jim. Instead, his character seems caught between gruff defensiveness and a kind of paternalism, repeatedly offering Jim coffee and whiskey, and even folding the blanket under which the boy slept.
And preppy Jim is believably and likably played by Robinson, brightly animated and nuanced in his delivery. The fastidious nature of Jim’s fact-checking escalates over the course of the play—including a hilarious scene of Jim using a sketch of a Las Vegas intersection to show that what John describes as a traffic jam couldn’t have been a jam at all—though Jim’s character remains otherwise one-dimensional.
But “The Lifespan of a Fact” isn’t really about character. Rather, Emily, John and Jim are pulling at philosophic threads that may never find their ends, certainly not over the course of a play. Truth and reality probed and prodded through their lively sparring—even about the deaths of children—is compelling. One only wishes to have gotten to know them better along the way.
“The Lifespan of a Fact” continues at The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles, through April 30, with performances Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $45 (Mondays are pay what you can) and can be purchased by calling the box office at (323) 663-1525 or visiting Fountaintheatre.com. Run time is 85 minutes with no intermission. Masks required on Sundays.