'The Lifespan of a Fact' - engrossing play's strange story at Aurora Theatre

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday July 9, 2024
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Elijah Alexander, Carrie Paff and Hernán Angulo in 'The Lifespan of a Fact' (photo: Kevin Berne)
Elijah Alexander, Carrie Paff and Hernán Angulo in 'The Lifespan of a Fact' (photo: Kevin Berne)

Painfully funny and crackled with intelligent ambiguity, "The Lifespan of a Fact," now playing in a superb production at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre, is but a single link in an unlikely lineage of artistic and philosophical responses to a suicide that took place 22 years ago this month.

Sixteen-year-old Levi Presley leapt to his death from atop Las Vegas' Stratosphere casino. The arc of his fall intersected with the meaning-seeking imagination of John D'Agata, a well-regarded essayist and professor of creative writing who was living in Vegas at the time and volunteering at a local suicide hotline.

In the immediate wake of Presley's death, D'Agata wrote a searching meditation that interwove an account of this tragedy with stoic observations on the nature of chance, the history Las Vegas and elusive notions of the American dream.

In 2003, D'Agata submitted his piece to Harper's Magazine, which rejected it for a raft of factual inaccuracies. Defending his work as an artful reflection on the pithy topics it broached, D'Agata argued that, as an essayist rather than a journalist, his goal was to creatively summon a sense of Truth, not to objectively convey a series of facts.

In January 2010, a revised version of the Harper's piece, titled "What Happens There," was published in The Believer, a respected but considerably less prestigious magazine. The 20-page article had been meticulously fact-checked by Jim Fingal, an unpaid intern, whose queries and proposed corrections filled over 100 pages. Some suggested changes were made, but controversy flurried through the media.

In February 2010, D'Agata's book-length essay, "About A Mountain" was published by W.W. Norton. Beginning with the federally proposed Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Depository on the outskirts of Las Vegas as his subject, D'Agata epically embroiders a portrait of contemporary American life which concludes with Levi Presley's suicide. Both D'Agata's stirring prose and the controversy about its accuracy drew attention to the book.

In February 2011, a paperback reprint of "About a Mountain" was published by W.W. Norton. Controversy redux. In February 2012, "The Lifespan of a Fact," a book by D'Agata and Jim Fingal, was published by W.W. Norton. In it, the authors recreate and expand upon their aesthetic and moral arguments during the fact-checking process for The Believer: fiction vs. nonfiction, facts vs. truth, and art vs. journalism were the conceptual fodder for a "based on a true story" battle between foes who, by the time of the book's writing, had become friends.

In 2018, a stage version of "The Lifespan of a Fact," adapted by playwrights Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell, debuted on Broadway. The script sets the D'Agata-Fingal feud at a fictional magazine. It's a hit.

Elijah Alexander and Hernán Angulo in 'The Lifespan of a Fact' (photo: Kevin Berne)  

Odd couple
Directed with snap and speed by Jessica Holt, the Aurora Theatre production feels like a sit-com with a serrated edge. There's lots of fodder for post-performance debate over fake news, "truthiness," and integrity (of both artistic and journalistic stripes). But the show doesn't mull and muse. Instead, it pushes its protagonists to entertaining comic extremes.

Elijah Alexander's D'Agata is a shaggy Oscar Madison. Hernán Angulo's Fingal is a persnickety Felix Unger. Both performances are terrific, tilting toward caricature but never toppling over the line. As their personae lean to extremes (Ably abetted by Jessie Amoroso's costume design), so do Fingal and D'Agata's arguments.

Fingal can be tough to take in his monomaniacal quest for accuracy (Does it really matter if a brick terrace was red or brown?); and D'Agata's guiltless willingness to swap out reality for his verbal interpretive dance routines can feel like blatant disregard for his readers.

Carrie Paff plays the pair's overseeing editor, Emily Penrose (a fictional character), with a delicate balance of tough love, restrained admiration, and deadline-driven urgency. It's to both Paff's and the playwrights' credit that Emily is rendered more specifically than the male characters.

While they may initially view her as the lady rope in their macho tug-of-war, Emily has her own stake in the game. She needs to burnish the magazine's reputation by publishing groundbreaking stories, while protecting it from libel suits and the loss of advertising that tends to accompany them. For all the men's self-aggrandizing arguments over Truth and ethics, the buck literally stops at Emily.

Carrie Paff and Hernán Angulo in 'The Lifespan of a Fact'  

This play, the Believer article, and the two books built on D'Agata's original essay, all exist in a queasy, shameless marketplace of "reality" and infotainment. Suicide elicits morbid curiosity. Controversy intrigues, and sells.

Even a prolonged debate between a writer and a fact-checker can be franchised as Intellectual Property. (Note the market-savvy publishing schedule that leads from D'Agata's essay in The Believer through the book version of "The Lifespan of a Fact").

This bizarre bloodline of cultural artifacts doesn't end with the play. In 2023, director L. Frances Henderson made a documentary film adaptation of "About A Mountain" with a strong focus on Levi Presley's death.

In tracing the Gordian-knotted genealogy of these works, one can't help feeling that what began as a genuine quest for veracity has evolved into navel-gazing voraciousness. The rippling wake of Levi Presley's suicide has carried artistic expression, philosophical pondering, and commercial byproducts. They're discomfitingly one and the same.

'The Lifespan of a Fact,' through July 21. $20-$65. 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. (510) 843-4822. www.auroratheatre.org

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