Curious Theatre kicks off its 24th season with a comedy about truth

This well-constructed play pits the world’s most dedicated fact checker against an essayist whose appreciation for accuracy takes a back seat to his artistic persuasions. In the middle is the harried magazine editor, for whom the fact checking exercise is more for show than integrity.

The Lifespan of a Fact is the first show from Curious Theatre Company since March of 2020, and it’s nothing if not well-timed in this era of extreme gaslighting and fake news. Written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell and directed by Curious veteran Christy Montour-Larson, this dramatic comedy takes aim not so much at whether facts are true but, rather, what facts are in the first place.

For Vegas-based freelancer John D’Agata (William Hahn), his story about a teen suicide (off the Stratosphere, no less) is chockful of details that run into a buzzsaw of probity from magazine intern Jim Fingal (John Hauser). Given the opportunity by editor Emily Penrose (Sheryl McCallum) to fact-check a cover piece by the well-known writer, Jim jumps in with both feet. But these are three people with three very different aims working against a Monday morning deadline.

John is 100 percent certain his piece is perfect, and that any discrepancies about facts are irrelevant to the quality of the story (and the victim’s parents liked it fine, he keeps reminding us). Jim assumes that when Emily tells him to essentially fact-check the shit out of the essay, she means it.

But does she? Torn between her latent journalistic integrity and sinking ad sales, Emily only wants to cover her ass, thinking ahead to any potential legal questions she can tamp down by saying “Well, we tried!” If D’Agata’s essay (not an “article”, as he angrily tells Jim) can help sell a few more copies of the unnamed magazine, well what difference does it make if that 4 is really a 3 or the crackers in question were Triscuits brand?

Loose with the truth

As someone who’s written or edited a few thousand things in my career, playing loose with the facts has always come with a pretty clear rule: If you purposefully put something in your story that was demonstrably untrue for whatever reason, you’re fired. If you’re a freelancer, you’ll never work for the Bugle ever again. If you’re the editor who let that into print knowing it was false, there’s the door.

Those who casually throw shade on mainstream media or the press in general often do so without understanding how ironclad that rule is, and how strongly it’s imprinted on a young journalist’s mind at the outset of their career. Lie and you die; the truth will set you free – something like that.

What’s intriguing about the stretchers John tries to get away with is how he views their placement in the first place. He’s not inserting falsehoods for any reason other than style, sound, effect. If three facts refer to one of this, two of that and four of another thing, he’s going to swap a three for that last one just because he thinks the progression sounds better. John, and to a lesser extent Emily, seems to apply a sliding scale to this type of non-fictional fibbing: If it’s a super-important detail that’s easily contestable, maybe he lets it stand. If it’s something like the brand of crackers that no one will ever give a shit about, he’ll change it to suit his purpose.

A tight trio

Montour-Larson has an excellent cast to work with here, as well as a highly functional, two-level set that works well for depicting several different locations.

Hauser does a great job playing the part of someone who thinks facts are very much a big deal, and his character’s incredulity at John’s casual dissimulation is matched only by John’s open-mouthed amazement at the kinds of things this punk fact checker is worried about. He sputters and points and appeals to Emily to get rid of the kid who he at one point tries to strangle and later calls “a cancer.”

I loved Hahn in this role. He perfectly inhabits the post-truth writer who shrugs off what to him are outmoded standards and does his best to convince others to come along with him.

With her Hepburn-esque vocal pauses and commanding presence, McCallum has a lot of laugh lines, and she nails them all. Her performance as the flustered intermediary between opposing parties reminds me of her hilarious role as a beleaguered school principal in the Miners Alley production of Fairfield two summers ago. Here, she’s put herself in the position herself, and McCallum shows every bit of Emily’s frustration and exasperation along the way.

But when it comes to making the final decision to run the piece or not, she’s left holding the phone as we go to blackout and the play ends.

It’s a bit of a copout on the part of the playwrights. The whole story is about this ultimate decision, so leaving it unanswered is deeply unsatisfying. It’s not even clear how many of the essay’s falsehoods are corrected, so we’re left in the dark, literally, about Emily’s call and what it will say about her character.

On the other hand, if we’re to believe facts don’t matter all that much, an ambiguous ending like this might be entirely appropriate. The Lifespan of a Fact doesn’t weigh in on the right and wrong so much as it presents two opposing sides and a squishy middle. That may be where many of us live these days, and perhaps landing in the dark, undecided, is the only place to go.