NEW YORK — In an era when a politician brazenly dismisses any development he doesn’t like as fake news, can there be a pursuit nobler than that of the fact-checker?
Toiling in the archives of the verifiable, fortified by the reliability of contemporaneous documentation, the fact-checker is a last defense against the chaos of unsupported assertion and outrageous mendacity. And as embodied by a bearded, seemingly sleep-deprived Daniel Radcliffe in the engagingly trenchant and bracingly acted new Broadway play, “The Lifespan of a Fact,” he’s also impossibly, abrasively, hilariously unbearable.
Locked in a cage match with two more-than-worthy opponents — Cherry Jones, as a veteran magazine editor desperate for one last big splash, and Bobby Cannavale, portraying a writer of lyrical gifts with an allergy to what ordinary folk consider the truth — Radcliffe offers up a heroically pesky turn in this buoyantly literate world premiere, which had its official opening Thursday night at Studio 54.
The wholly resonant questions wrestled with in this briskly entertaining play by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell have to do with the inviolate demands of artists to see the world the way they choose to, and the mandate earthbound colleagues have, to keep them honest. In “The Lifespan of a Fact,” this comes down to the merits of the “nonfiction” essay Cannavale’s John has submitted, and that Jones’s Emily views as groundbreaking. The trouble for Radcliffe’s obsessive magazine fact-checker Jim is that John thinks of facts — in this case, surrounding the suicide of a Las Vegas teenager — as no less subject to massage than the soft clay in a sculptor’s tray.
This premise comes across as nothing short of revolutionarily esoteric for the Broadway of 2018. (The play is based on a book of the same title by essayist John D’Agata and his fact-checker, Jim Fingal, concerning a years-long debate between them over the defense D’Agata mounts to his taking poetic license with that suicide, in a piece about Nevada’s Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump.) At the same time, the stakes the playwrights lay out could not be timelier: Which is the bigger loss to a free society — an individual’s claim on modifying facts to illuminate deeper truths — or our collective trust in an objective reality on which we can all agree?
“Lifespan of a Fact’s” confrontation boils down in director Leigh Silverman’s lucidly handled, 90-minute production, on a utilitarian set by Mimi Lien, to a test of wills and three distinct perspectives articulated by a trio of hardheaded characters. How much of a landmark John’s piece may be is both crucial to the plot and beside the larger point; what matters is the more interesting issue of how much room a mature culture can make for metaphor. “Even the most precise numbers in the world tell you nothing,” John insists, as Jim presses him for concrete backup material, and Emily wavers between her appetite for a journalistic coup and anxiety about lawsuits.
The play would well have been a yawner had not these characters all been generously and sympathetically inhabited. Jones couldn’t be better as an editor vacillating in the murky zone of how-much-can-we-get-away-with. Cannavale — struggling with vocal problems on the night I saw the production — tempers the cliched notion of the imperious author with a deeply felt portrait of a frustrated visionary.
And Radcliffe provides the canny pivotal performance that demonstrates why the world needs sticklers. His Jim is a hollow-eyed noodge with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. Asked by modest-living John if he wants a drink, Radcliffe’s Jim replies, without irony, “Do you have any craft ales?” You have to be simultaneously charmed and irritated by Jim for “Lifespan” to gather momentum, because the objections he raises to publishing the essay must undermine your certainty of where your allegiance goes, to the power of words, or to history.
Or is it ultimately impossible to abide by any set of rules, in a rhetorical landscape increasingly muddied by “alternative facts”? On this incisive Broadway evening, anyway, you’ll find yourself happy to have your preconceptions disturbed and assumptions unsettled.
The Lifespan of a Fact, by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell. Directed by Leigh Silverman. Set, Mimi Lien; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, Jen Schriever; music and sound, Palmer Hefferan; projections, Lucy Mackinnon; production stage manager, Martha Donaldson. About 90 minutes. $59-$249. At Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., New York. telecharge.com or 212-239-6200.