Review: "Hashtag Fact"

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Hashtag Fact: At Stage West, The Lifetime of a Fact is a funny, fractious and thought-provoking stand-off between a writer and a fact checker.

by Martha Heimberg
TheaterJones November 13, 2019

Fort Worth — What facts are critical when the judge decides who gets custody or damages or jail time? Are all facts equal? Does everything that can be counted count? Can we count what really counts? Are you getting tired of questions like this? (Just a quick test to see if you want to keep reading.)

We’ve all been trained to seek the truth. Right? Lifespan of a Fact, directed with spot-on comic timing and deadline-driven force by Marianne Galloway to open Stage West’s 41st season, is about how we define truth and who makes the final edit before publishing — timely topic in the #fakenews and “alternative fact” era.

Let’s take a high dive into the play’s turgid source material.

The three-character play, written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell, is based on the 2012 book with the same title, which is the record of a seven-year email argument between writer John D’Agata and fact checker Jim Fingal, an employee at the west coast literary magazine, 'The Believer'. In 2003, 'Harper’s' turned down the story they commissioned D’Agata to write about a Las Vegas teenager named Levi Presley, who jumped to his death from the roof of a casino in 2002. The editors saw too many first-round factual errors. The writer quickly resold the piece to another publication. Thus, the John versus Jim battle was on.

To shrink that long fight about the writer’s liberties in telling the big story and the ethics of recalibrating facts for style purposes into a play, the trio of playwrights compressed the book-length battle into five manic days and 90 minutes of stage time (at Stage West, there’s a 15-minute intermission). They also moved the magazine to the east coast and added a gloriously fair-minded and sensitive female editor to serve as referee and human sponge between these fiercely ego-driven male wordmongers.

The play’s action starts on Wednesday, illuminated in lights by Tristan Decker’s stage center projection design, signaling the pressure of time from the first scene. Jim Fingal (a bright, bespectacled Evan Michael Woods) is bringing coffee to the white and chrome office of Emily Penrose (a wry, urgent Dana Schultes), the editor of a glossy New York magazine where this Harvard grad is interning. Sitting across from her and leaning his whole frame forward from his toes up, this eager sharpie convinces the boss he’s the man for a speedy fact-check of a gripping article by John D’Agata she’s decided to get to the printer on Monday as the lead piece in the next issue instead of a ho-hum article on congressmen’s wives. Emily hands him a fresh package of Bic red pens, and sends him off and checking.

Fasten your seatbelts. Thursday lights up and Woods’ scruffy, frantic Jim shows up in Emily’s office, his cowlick out of control and his eyes gleaming. He’s excited and thrilled by the huge spreadsheet of errors he’s found in the opening sentence alone. From the exact date of the ban on lap dancing to the color of brick on the sidewalk, which he confirms is brown and not red, what a convoluted tangle of distorted reality he’s documented with new red pens.

Concerned but calm Emily explains she admires Jim’s standards, but these are hard times for literary magazines and good stories sell and compromises are sometimes necessary. When the author himself is drawn into the discussion via an on-screen projection of a flurry of emails, it’s clear he doesn’t appreciate this nerdy newbie’s meddling in his art. “Don’t get bogged down in the details,” he advises when Jim points to mistakes in fact that destroy credibility.

Friday blinks into being, accompanied by sound-designer Marco Salinas’ comically ominous drumroll. Fact man Jim has flown to author John’s home in Las Vegas where he cared for his ailing, now deceased mother. The curtain opens on Clare DeVries’s marvelously detailed set, a tacky 50’s-style old lady interior with light wood and turquoise counters and shelves packed with tchotchkes.

The fun and intrigue of the show is in the hilarious and revealing scenes that ensue as Woods’ persevering Jim, hunched over with a backpack weighted with marked-up manuscripts, addresses John (a gruff, arrogant Chris Hury with a noxious thorn in his poet’s side), one of his writing heroes, in this bizarre setting. Jim can barely choke down his mug of Maxwell House coffee before John attacks.

The arguments and insults fly fast and faster, as Hury’s hard-drinking, self-aggrandizing John defends his choice to change pink to purple because it sounds better. Jim stands his ground, literally chin-to-chin with the big guy declaring the story breaks “at least ten rules of journalism.” Ah, John insists, he’s not some fact-grubbing journalist, but a “lyric essayist” in the tradition of Augustine, Dequincy and Thoreau. Uh-huh.

As an audience, we’re drawn variously to both characters and their stubborn positions. Is Jim just a soulless tech geek who can’t distinguish what facts matter and what might not? Is John just a bully, a writer so fragile he can’t change a word or lose his very identity? Or is he a staunch hero of the great essayist tradition, a man whose world view and dedication to his craft is on beyond the sort of data-driven analysis of a mere fact checker?

In the so-called “post-truth” world of social media, in which objective facts are less influential in how we decide what matters than emotional appeals to old reality models, where do we come down? What sources do we turn to reliably check out what really happened? All good questions.

Schultes’ hard-pressed editor delivers the final goods, bigtime. She takes off her glasses, tosses her blonde bob back and enters the fray. Her forthright language and brave defense of her position brings a sudden rationale and eloquence to an argument that has become as exhausting to us as to the two men on the stage. We need her!

To say more would be to spoil the thoughtful and resonant experience of Galloway’s swiftly paced and beautifully cast direction of this droll human comedy.

No doubt about one thing: we make meaning as best we can, and each in his own way, out of the jillion factoids and sense impressions that assail us every moment. You’ll laugh watching these two guys duke it out on the stage, talk about the issues all the way home, and think about the whole business even longer.