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Truth or Dare

Mon, 03/20/2023 - 13:22
Matthew Conlon, Laurie Atlas, and Jamie Baio star in "The Lifespan of a Fact," in which a New Journalist comes up against an intern who is a stickler for detail.
Dane DuPuis

If you have any doubts that you are currently living in an information dystopia, you can simply turn on the news and watch a certain television anchor (and select members of Congress) explain nightly that the Jan. 6 insurrection was a mostly peaceful demonstration, a kind of Capitol sightseeing tour, and that footage of a violent mob forcing its way into the building's entrance was "cherry picked." 

A year ago we were told that the Covid lab-leak theory was nonsense, perhaps racially motivated -- until news reports from a few weeks ago confirmed that the lab-leak theory was the most likely. Then literally today, as of this writing, the news was reporting that DNA evidence from the Wuhan wet markets now connects Covid back to animals, specifically to raccoon dogs (whatever they are). 

This brave new world of "alternative facts" is at the heart of the 2018 play "The Lifespan of a Fact," now in revival at the Hampton Theatre Company in Quogue. 

The play begins as Jim Fingal, an ambitious intern (played by Jamie Baio), is given a fact-checking assignment by Emily Penrose, the editor of a prestigious New York literary magazine (played by Laurie Atlas). The piece in question is called "What Happens There," a journalistic exploration of the culture of suicide in Las Vegas. 

The writer of the piece, John D'Agata (Matthew Conlon), is portrayed as heir to the era of New Journalism, which included writers such as Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer. He is highly idealistic about the art of writing, placing story and "feeling" before facts. He's also a bit of a prima donna, chastising the young intern for calling his piece a mere "article." "It's an essay!" he declares.  

When Jim delivers his fact-questioning report on the essay, it stretches to no less than 130 pages (the essay itself is only 15!). This sets off a mano-a-mano between intern and writer, with the editor caught in the middle. 

The play, written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell, is based on an actual incident from 2003 involving Harper's magazine that was then turned into a 2012 book by the real John D'Agata and Jim Fingal. This may be why the play can sometimes feel a little arch, constructed like a dramatized essay with the editor caught mediating the debate. 

And this production gets off to a slow start. The opening scene of irascible editor and eager intern was played in a minor key by Ms. Atlas and Mr. Baio -- they spoke in low, tentative voices and, on opening night at least, seemed uneasy. In the next scene a phone call from the writer D'Agata to Emily was poorly microphoned and mostly indecipherable, sounding -- if you'll forgive me -- like someone speaking through a tin can and a string. Soon after, an office chair was wheeled off the stage as Jim was still speaking to the audience, muffling his aside at a critical moment. 

Then the scene changes to John D'Agata's apartment on the fringes of Las Vegas, and it's suddenly as if you're watching a brand-new, utterly vibrant play. Jim is sleeping on D'Agata's couch -- he's come all the way from New York to hash out the fact discrepancies -- and now, with the two rivals in the same room, the actors settle in and the scenes begin to crackle with energy. 

Mr. Conlon (who bears an uncanny resemblance to the film actor Anthony Heald; check it out) is terrific at playing obsessive, exacting characters, in this performance perfectly capturing the writer's imperious romanticism. "I don't care about accuracy," he exclaims at one point, "I care about truth!" 

The play doesn't give the character Emily Penrose much to do. She's like a backboard, fielding the fact-versus-art arguments. But Ms. Atlas finds the equivocating tone of an editor, who must consider readers, investors, and legal issues all at the same time, not to mention a prima donna (but very talented) writer. 

And Mr. Baio, who was a recipient of an HTC Peter Marbury Scholarship, nearly steals it as the infuriating (but almost always right) intern. Jim may be very good at his job, and his stickler-for-detail personality may be a critical part of the editing process, but you'll want to choke him anyway (John D'Agata actually does). Mr. Baio's performance seems to grow with confidence as his character shows he can hold his own with this well-known writer. 

Smartly, the play unfolds without an intermission, which might have been a momentum killer. Emily Penrose soon arrives in Las Vegas, if only to keep the two men from killing each other. As managing editor, she is left to decide between accuracy and "truth." 

Though some may be frustrated by the play's ambiguous ending, the facts of the original case may offer a clue. Interestingly, Harper's magazine, which commissioned D'Agata's piece, decided not to publish it. Another magazine, however, The Believer, in fact did. 

As "The Lifespan of a Fact" seems to posit, it's the argument rather than the facts that are the more fascinating to reckon with.   

Through April 2, showtimes are at 7 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays, 8 p.m. on Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. on Sundays, with a matinee at that time on Saturday, April 1. Tickets range from $20 for students to $36 for adults.

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