The Lifespan of a Fact at 4th Wall Pits Poetic License Versus Fact

(L-R) Nick Farco and Jack Gereski in The Lifespan of a Fact.
(L-R) Nick Farco and Jack Gereski in The Lifespan of a Fact. Photo by Gabriella Nissen

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

Perhaps, this axiom should apply to The Lifespan of a Fact (2018), a didactic essay masquerading as a play via 4th Wall Theatre Company. Let's keep this in Vegas.

What's surprising about this one-note comedy is that it took three writers to put it together. Adapted from the book by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal, who are real people in real time, the play has been written – or constructed – by Jeremy Kareken & David Murrell and Gordon Farrell. (Apparently, the ampersand is meaningful. We'll have to fact check that.)

In 2002, teenager Levi Presley jumped to his death from the observation deck of Vegas's Stratosphere Hotel. At 1,149 feet, it was the highest tower in the United States, second only to Toronto's CN Tower. Commissioned by Harper's Magazine, distinguished journalist D'Agata wrote “What Happens There,” an essay about Presley's suicide that interwove pop culture, the nature of suicide, and the fascination with the legend of Vegas to convey his theme of why that clock-less city had the highest suicide rate in the nation.

Harper's wasn't pleased with the article and dropped it. D'Agata then submitted his piece to The Believer, a San Francisco cult literary journal, who assigned young Harvard grad Fingal to fact check the work. Fingal eventually turned in 132 pages of inaccuracies in D'Agata's 15-page article. The contentious confrontation took seven years to resolve until the article was finally published in 2010, edited by Fingal. The two must have formed a bond after all this in-fighting for they wrote a book about their literary battles, The Lifespan of a Fact (2012), in which D'Agata's text is compared and contrasted to Fingal's numerous questions and corrections.

The play is loosely based on the book, but it has been massaged and kneaded by six hands, which is four too many. The story has been condensed into a weekend, an inconceivable time span to edit and publish a feature article in a glossy magazine. This is the only drama the authors offer, though they drop other potent hints: the publisher's cryptic photograph on her desk and D'Agata's work at a Vegas suicide clinic.

The main theme – the play's only theme – pits poetic license against fact.

D'Agata (a prickly Nick Farco) knows his worth. A sentence needs a certain rhythm, that's what he supplies. Who cares if the tower's base is made of brown or red bricks? It's a tower and that's what matters. No, says persnickety Fingal (Jack Gereski, full of youthful tics and insecurities), I've checked and researched the building. The bricks are brown. “I'm not interested in accuracy,” spits out righteous D'Agata, “I'm interested in truth.”

This irony goes unresolved. I'm shocked no one directly says, What Is Truth? The 90-minute play revolves around this conundrum in various configurations, but without examination or resolution. What is the play saying? D'Agata argues that emotions – of the people profiled, of the meaning of the essay, of the artistry of the author – are as important as the facts of the story, probably more so. Doesn't art trump truth? Fingal keeps tripping him up with the facts. Tell your story, but tell it true. The play circles around today's news-worthy issues but just keeps circling.

The playwrights do add one clever touch – magazine editor Emily Primrose (Pamela Vogel, sharp and accurate as ever). Although she wears the most inappropriately drab clothing for a major magazine editor (costumer Macy Lyne stumbles badly here – think Devil Wears Prada, maybe), Emily becomes the referee between the two men, struggling to make her deadline, knowing a great story when she reads it, and needing a hit to keep her mag in the black. Who does she prefer? The writer whose emotional words enlarge the deeper meaning of the boy's suicide, or the fact checker who undermines the writer's integrity with his relentless mundane details?

Director Kim Tobin-Lehl keeps the pace lively, while set designer Ryan McGettigan supplies a soft coup de theatre when Emily's office transforms into D'Agata's Las Vegas home with a swish of a curtain and the moving of the proscenium frame. Nice work there.

Is truth harmed when art is foremost? Shouldn't facts matter even when inconvenient? Where's the compromise? Is there one? Lifespan remains too constrained for such expansive thoughts.

The Lifespan of a Fact continues through February 5 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; and 3 p.m. Sundays at 4th Wall Theatre at Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street. Proof of negative COVID test within 72 hours or full vaccination card required. Mask required. For more information, call 832-767-4991 or visit $17-$53. 7:30 p.m. Monday, January 31, Pay What You Can.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover