Review: ‘The Lifespan of a Fact’ in L.A. makes engaging comedy out of the blurring of truth

Three people huddle over the pages of a manuscript.
Fact-checking turns into a battle in “The Lifespan of a Fact” at the Fountain Theatre with, from left, Jonah Robinson, Inger Tudor and Ron Bottitta.
(Jenny Graham)

Consensus has been been one of the chief casualties of Donald Trump’s calamitous presidency. What postmodernism started, a White House of “alternative facts” finished. We’re now all peering through relativistic lenses, accepting the reality that best comports with our beliefs and interests.

The subject of truth and journalism has grown even more fraught since “The Lifespan of a Fact” appeared on Broadway in 2018. The play by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell was written before “the big lie” precipitated the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Fox wasn’t yet fending off a mammoth defamation lawsuit for promulgating Trump’s election deceits. Our democracy was certainly being tested, but our constitutional system didn’t seem to be holding on by mere threads.

The dire state of our polarized politics can’t help but affect how we view “The Lifespan of a Fact,” which is receiving its West Coast premiere at the Fountain Theatre under the direction of Simon Levy. The play is based on a book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal that recounts their epic journalistic battle over the meaning of truth.


In one corner is a literary essayist (D’Agata) who’s writing lyrically about the real-life tragedy of a young man who jumped to his death from the roof of a hotel in Las Vegas. In the other is a zealous young fact-checker (Fingal) who is determined not to let the slightest error make it into the published piece.

The stakes are comparatively small scale, but the intensity of the fighting is fierce. In combing through D’Agata’s 15-page essay, Fingal produces a 130-page spreadsheet of queries. Some are small. (Is the the hotel pavilion brick red or brown?) Others are more consequential. (Did anyone else die by suicide in the same way that day in Las Vegas?)

The two men argue over the exact number of seconds it took Levi Presley to fall to his death. D’Agata writes that it was nine seconds but Fingal, citing the coroner’s report, insists that it was eight. Numbers for D’Agata aren’t important in themselves. He’s more responsive to symbolism, symmetry and the sound of syllables. Fingal is understandably aghast at this casual attitude toward countable reality.

The conflict is ratcheted up for comic effect. The play’s authors don’t take sides. D’Agata’s position is hardly defensible on literary grounds, but the obsessiveness of Fingal can make it seem that no piece of information can withstand his relentless scrutiny.

On Broadway, Daniel Radcliffe was like a fact-checker on a religious mission. His Fingal was compelled to root out evil falsehoods of any size, even if his fanaticism ended his career. Radcliffe’s gritty conviction tilted the play in Fingal’s favor.

At the Fountain, the theatrical contest shifts slightly to D’Agata, thanks to the robust performance of Ron Bottitta. Amazed at the temerity of a mere intern to second guess his literary brilliance, Bottitta’s D’Agata treats Jonah Robinson’s Fingal like a pesky mosquito that has entered his home thorough a hole in a screen.


Actually, Fingal knocked on D’Agata’s door after flying in from New York. This trip wasn’t part of the editorial plan. Fingal is panicked about the approaching deadline set by the magazine’s editor, Emily Penrose (Inger Tudor). The assignment represents his big break, and the Harvard grad acts like his very existence is riding on the outcome.

The scenic design by Joel Daavid conjures both the Midcentury Modern decor of D’Agata‘s Vegas home and the magazine’s modern headquarters. Nicholas Santiago’s video design makes us privy to the various forms of written communication pingponging between New York and Nevada with increased frenzy.

Tudor’s character is underwritten. (Not even the endlessly resourceful Cherry Jones could turn Penrose into an equal theatrical combatant in the Broadway production, which also starred Bobby Cannavale as D’Agata.) But Tudor seems a bit too sincere and low-key for a formidable magazine editor.

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Robinson is perfectly persnickety as Fingal, who knows he’s insufferable but can’t help himself. The character is awash in anxiety in large part because as the low man on the totem pole he doesn’t want to jeopardize his expected place in the professional elite. But he also believes that without accurate information there can be no shared knowledge.

Bottitta’s D’Agata is the whiskey-drinking common man who becomes imperious when anyone tries to tamper with his work. His lordly indifference to facts isn’t easy to justify, but as a leading figure in the literary nonfiction genre, he claims to be seeking a truth higher than pedestrian journalism.

“The Lifespan of a Fact” may not seem all that consequential right now, given everything that’s going on. But this impression is itself a bit misleading. Sweating the small details at a time when authoritarians are blurring the line between fact and fiction is urgent business. But so too is reexamining our assumptions about these categories, which may not be as discrete as we think.


‘The Lifespan of a Fact’

Where: Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays, Mondays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 2.
Tickets: $25-$45
Info: (323) 663-1525,
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes, no intermission