Review: "Devil in the Details"

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Devil in the Details: Stage West's 'The Lifespan of a Fact'

by Christopher Soden, Dallas Art Beat

Jim Fingal’s been an intern at a prestigious magazine (The Believer ) for six months, when he gets word of a plum (if rigorous) assignment. Editor Emily Penrose needs someone to factcheck a groundbreaking essay by the preeminent John D’Agata. They’re on a fierce time clock, no excuses or delays. But Jim knows it’s an invaluable opportunity to prove himself, and enhance his standing at the firm. When Penrose hands him the symbolic package of red pens, it actually puts a spring in his step. It’s not long, though, before he’s finding numerous, irresolvable inaccuracies. Penrose gives him D’Agata’s contact information, assuring him she’ll let him know to expect Jim’s correspondence. Jim is very respectful and polite (he holds John in awe) but Mr. D’Agata is worse than obstinate. He dismisses Jim with terse replies and arrogant insults.

 Adapted by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell (from Fingal and D’Agata’s book) The Lifespan of a Fact is based on a true incident, involving: an editor trying to bolster her flagging magazine, an eager, dedicated intern, who takes his job very seriously, and a revered author, who conceals his liberties with the truth with hubris. Kareken, Murrell and Farrell are quite cunning (which is not to say deceptive) in their strategy. There’s much more to these three than we would guess, and complexity in their intersection. D’Agata is utterly obnoxious, yet we sense a grudging respect for Fingal. Penrose and D’Agata are longtime friends, yet she’s pandering to his ego. While Jim Fingal may have started this desperate debacle as an unwitting pawn, his principles earn him traction.

At the center of The Lifespan of a Fact is a dialectic on nonfiction and the artfulness that makes it absorbing. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was published in 1966, a true and accurate account of the Clutter murders, written as a “novel”. It submerged readers in the grisly event, and for many, elevated the genre to the level of literature. John D’Agata compares himself to Joan Didion and Susan Sontag, but we’ve got to wonder if his desire to capture the essence of a wrenching suicide blinds him to the ethical demands of accuracy. Essay or article, writing in the context of nonfiction nets you considerable gravitas, and D’Agata seems to be exploiting the gray area. Jim Fingal wrestles with him tirelessly, unwavering in his position that fudging details for the sake of authenticity, is no excuse.

Starring Dana Schultes (Emily Penrose) Chris Hury (John D’Agata) and Evan Michael Woods (Jim Fingal) The Lifespan of a Fact  is powerful, pleasurable, engaging theatre. It moves fast, pulls us in, surprises us over and over. It drops us into the thick of an intense quandary. 

Schultes, Hury and Woods are crisp, pointed, and affecting. Marianne Galloway’s direction is intelligent and intuitive, balancing the imperative with pathos. The just with the absurd.