TheaterWorks is giving “The Lifespan of a Fact,” by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell, a beautifully acted and designed production in Hartford through March 8. Director Tracy Brigden paces the 80-minute evening at a comic clip, but she makes sure the serious moments give us plenty to think about.
Plays or movies about writing rarely work well, as writing is not particularly dramatic. Here, though, the drama arises when author, John D’Agata (Rufus Collins) becomes entangled in a fierce intellectual battle with a young fact-checker, Jim Fingal (Nick LaMedica). Jim, fresh out of Harvard, is an intern at a magazine much like The Believer (where a version of these events actually took place). The magazine’s editor, Emily Penrose (Tasha Lawrence) feels strongly that D’Agata’s article about a teenager’s suicide is important enough to rush into print. But she also knows that John has a penchant for disregarding journalistic precision in favor of his own themes. Under a tight deadline, she chooses Jim to do a “good faith” check. But between wanting to prove himself to her and genuinely believing that facts—and only facts—make up the truth, Jim is soon producing more corrections than John’s piece has pages.
The characters of John and Jim are an actor’s dream, and Collins and LaMedica are both terrific. Where it would be easy to stereotype John as an arrogant bully, Brigden and Collins have instead made sure that we meet a multi-faceted person who believes in the story he has written, and who moves seamlessly between biting cynicism and amused sympathy for Jim’s youth and fervor.
As Jim, LaMedica plays that fervor with sharp comic timing, and late in the action, we see that he can project a kind of desperate depth as well. Brigden’s only misstep, in fact, is directing LaMedica towards somewhat superficial comedy through most of the production instead of letting the humor arise more naturally out of his panic and commitment.
The role of Emily Penrose is underwritten, but as played by Tasha Lawrence, with her lovely low and raspy voice, Emily becomes much richer than the lines alone suggest. Emily’s snappy multi-tasking, her business-like confidence, and her impatience with both men when they act like annoying nephews she must keep in hand, contrast with a carefully guarded sensitivity. Despite playing the moderator in this battle, Lawrence’s performance is easily as memorable as those of LaMedica and Collins.
A great strength of TheaterWorks’ production is in the set design by Brian Prather. Prather has created two completely contrasting worlds: one, the coldly minimalist editorial office, and the other John’s house (which was his late mother’s) and which is cluttered with papers, canned food, a working coffee pot, and naturally, a kitchen sink. The mess serves as a metaphor for the emotional unrest that drives his writing.
Tracy Christensen’s costumes nicely reflect the characters’ minds and inner conflicts, with some winning surprises throughout. The lighting, by Brian Bembridge; the sound, by Obadiah Eaves; and Zachary Borovay’s stunning projections elevate this production so that we feel the weight of the questions and debates, whether consciously or unconsciously.
“The Lifespan of a Fact” is a wonderfully entertaining comedy, but this director and her team are also intelligently mindful of the ethical dilemmas that underpin the fun.
“The Lifespan of a Fact” continues at TheaterWorks through March 8. For ticket reservations or further information call: 860.527.7838 or visit: https://twhartford.org