When a first-time young fact checker for one of the best magazines in the country is assigned to check a groundbreaking essay by a legendary author, he finds that a lot of it is made up. As the final deadline looms, journalistic accuracy and poetic license square off as author and fact-checker actually come to blows in the fact-based comedy, “The Lifespan of a Fact.”
“It’s got everything in it,” explains Cristina Alicea, Vermont Stage’s producing artistic director.
“It’s really, really funny,” she said. “I would call it a Vermont Stage play in terms of being very socially relevant, starting interesting conversations, and also very funny — it’s brilliantly entertaining.”
Vermont Stage company will close its 27th year of professional theater with this new comedy by Jeremy Kareken and Gordon Farrell.
“What’s interesting is its very first production was a Broadway production,” Alicea, who directs the production, said. “It didn’t start on the regional theater circuit.”
Jim Fingal, a young fact-checker challenges a legendary author on the validity of his essay days before its publication. The comedy is based on the true story of John D’Agata’s essay “What Happens There” and the book titled “The Lifespan of a Fact,” in fact, co-written by D’Agata and Fingal.
“Of course, it’s a true story, embellished somewhat,” Alicea said. “If you look through the book, this is really wild! A hundred and some odd pages of notes on a 15-page essay.
“Every little granular detail. And it’s really funny,” Alicea said. “When I first read it, my first reaction was, this is a Vermont Stage play. It’s very, very funny, but it’s also grounded in many ways in what’s happening in the world now.”
The fact that “The Life of a Fact” is based directly on a publishing story about facts would ordinarily make it a bit dry.
“We’re working hard to find that balance — making sure it’s really humorous, but when it goes to more serious places the seriousness feels authentic,” Alicea said. “That’s what I’m working on now, being mindful that each character’s arc is rooted in and grounded in their objectives. It does go to extremes, but it’s grounded in very interesting ideas.”
The characters are almost archetypes, at least on the page. Jordan Gullikson, who recently directed Vermont Stage’s “Annapurna,” is John D’Agata, the affronted great writer.
“He is this sort of classic, very successful, prominent writer whose ego is probably bigger than it should be,” Alicea said. “Due to his passion for his writing about him, he has started being a lot looser with his facts about him, glossing over facts to pursue his artistic and social ambitions about him in his writing about him.
“In that way, he’s both the protagonist and antagonist of this piece,” Aicea said.
Jim Fingal, played by Timmy Lewis, becomes D’Agata’s counterpoint.
“He is as green as green comes; he’s just newly entered this field of journalism and has been given this assignment to fact-check this legendary author, and he wants to do a good job,” Alicea said.
“But he has what I would call a deficit in judgment, in not knowing where the line is,” she said. “What are the important elements of the essay? And what are the things he should be looking at and double-checking and fact-checking things that are not really worthy of fact-checking because at the end of the day they’re not integral to the writing?”
“It seems that he took it very literally when given the assignment,” Alicea said.
That’s what Fingal did in real life.
“In the play, that’s what I find interesting about Jim Fingal: He is not embellished if you’re looking at the book,” Alicea said. “You can’t come up with a hundred-some-odd pages fact checking on a 15-page essay without having someone who takes their job, very, very literally.”
Maria Hendricks is Emily Penrose, the publisher’s representative, the referee caught in the middle.
“She’s the editor and the stakes are very high for her because this piece of writing could potentially win an award, could put the magazine back on the map, could shift her career in a positive direction,” Alicea said. “So, she is charged with deciding who she ‘s she right.”
The idea that these two polar-opposite people, a seasoned writer and this intern, arguing over a piece of writing doesn’t seem inherently funny, yet it becomes farcical.
“They take these arguments to the nth degree,” Alicea said. “Still, the writing in the play isn’t very far off the notes Jim Fingal wrote in the book. Some of his notes from him are taken word-for-word in the play.