Right now, there’s not much for journalists to laugh about. In an era of constant layoffs, corporate takeovers and endless accusations of “fake news,” it feels like the whole industry is in a mood spiral.
It’s surprising then, that a play asking complicated questions about journalism and ethics could also be a lively comedy. The Lifespan of a Fact, now playing at Pioneer Theatre Company, can’t solve any of the industry’s crises. It can, however, make you appreciate these journalists while laughing at their foibles.
Emily Penrose (Constance Macy) is a magazine editor looking for her next great story. She finds it in an inventive essay by John D’Agata (Ben Cherry) that describes the suicide of a teenage boy in Las Vegas. It seems like everything’s falling into place. But when Emily asks a young intern named Jim Fingal (John Croft) to complete a standard fact check, he finds dozens of errors, both big and small. John is more concerned with emotional potency than factual exactness — he makes a clear distinction between “accuracy” and “truth.” Jim, meanwhile, thinks that every fact must be totally proven, and he investigates even the tiniest minutiae with obsessive vigor. These opposing viewpoints kick off a spirited and often emotional debate over ethics, integrity and the nature of truth.
This appealingly small-scale play zips by in 90 minutes with no intermission, confined to three characters and one long weekend. The script relies on strong performances from its three central actors, and luckily this cast has an easy chemistry. Croft brims with neurotic energy, and his particular brand of anxiety might be, ahem, relatable to certain audience members who are young, underpaid and trying to prove themselves in the magazine industry. (I wouldn’t know.) Macy is an appealing straight woman, and Cherry has fun with his character’s wit and snobbery — he is a wiseass that puts equal emphasis on both parts of that word.
Even as they deal with serious subject matter, playwrights Jeremy Kareken, Gordon Farrell and David Murrell keep a light hand — The Lifespan of a Fact is more Neil Simon than Spotlight. John and Jim’s lively debates are frequently funny, but they also contain real substance. John and Jim are obsessive about their opposing points-of-view, but by the end of the play, they both seem equally valid. Both characters are interested in finding the core truth of the essay, and their back-and-forth reveals that truth is not always black-and-white. The President is still wrong — there’s no such thing as alternative facts. But The Lifespan of a Fact reminds audiences that there’s plenty of fun to be had in the shades of grey.