by Thomas Floyd
When Jeremy Kareken and David Murrell set out to adapt the 2012 book “The Lifespan of a Fact” for the Broadway stage, the longtime creative partners thought they were tackling an auspiciously straightforward assignment.
The source material, for one, came in at a relatively slim 128 pages. But more notably, the text was entirely composed of pithy exchanges between essayist John D’Agata and fact-checker Jim Fingal as they worked their way, sentence by sentence, through the former’s nonfiction piece for Believer magazine about the 2002 suicide of a Las Vegas teenager.
“It seemed almost designed to be adapted into a play,” Murrell says during a recent video chat alongside Kareken, “because it’s just dialogue.”
“Emphasis,” Kareken interjects, “on the word ‘seems.’”
Kareken and Murrell soon came to realize that the task was more imposing than they anticipated. Between March 2012, when they first discussed adapting the book, and October 2018, when “The Lifespan of a Fact” opened on Broadway, the duo traded countless drafts, welcomed Gordon Farrell as a third co-writer, and incorporated the ideas of director Leigh Silverman and original stars Daniel Radcliffe, Bobby Cannavale and Cherry Jones.
Along the way, the “fake news” phenomenon had begun to permeate the political discourse. The play’s central debate — about how a larger truth can sometimes be at odds with factual accuracy — remains remarkably resonant.
“At what point are the facts irrelevant to the essence of the story?” Farrell asks in a phone interview. “That turned out to be a topic of national and global concern. None of the three of us knew or expected that. So somehow or other, we just stumbled onto the zeitgeist.”
Murrell first came across “Lifespan” when he read a scathing review of the book and sent it Kareken’s way, leaving both playwrights curious enough to read D’Agata and Fingal’s work for themselves. Struck by the partly true, partly fictionalized back-and-forth between the artistically inclined D’Agata and the comically meticulous Fingal, they considered penning a movie version or an experimental off-Broadway play before producer Norman Twain acquired the rights and suggested they write for a Broadway audience.
The playwrights decided early on to condense the years-long fact-checking process that played out in real life and add the ticking clock of a deadline, as the character of Fingal is assigned to work on D’Agata’s essay over one weekend. Kareken and Murrell also turned the essay’s editor — heard from only briefly in the book — into a fully fleshed out character who functions as an arbiter between D’Agata and Fingal. And they largely narrowed the play’s focus to the disputes over D’Agata’s opening paragraph in the name of brevity.
“Norman Twain said, ‘Guys, this is an abstract intellectual argument, so this play has got to move’ — and he literally said this — ‘like the Jesus lizard,’” Kareken recalls. “You know, that lizard that runs so quickly over the surface of the river that it doesn’t sink.”
Some realizations, however, took longer than others. Kareken and Murrell were well into the writing process before they came upon one crucial epiphany: They had to get the characters of D’Agata and Fingal in the same room. Although the book depicts a series of long-distance exchanges between the two, the play puts Fingal on a cross-country trip to D’Agata’s Las Vegas home as their Socratic dialogue unfolds in person.
“We were providing dud after dud of drafts — it just wasn’t going anywhere,” Kareken says. “There is such an invasive force of Jim’s character. I mean, he is the engine behind the whole play. By making that physical, that was kind of the thing that finally made us think that this was a possibility.”
In the fall of 2015, Twain floated the possibility of asking another writer to tackle an ending that Kareken and Murrell agreed wasn’t clicking. That’s when Farrell, a veteran playwright who had provided notes on previous drafts, formally boarded the project. After attending a fall 2013 reading, Farrell remembers sharing “strong words” with Kareken and Murrell about that conclusion.
“There was a lot of genius writing, and so much of it was so, so funny and so sharp through the first two-thirds of the play,” Farrell says. “Then they maintained that tone right up to the end, and that’s where it went awry.”
Specifically, Farrell was struck by the poignancy of D’Agata’s essay and perplexed that the play didn’t include more of the writer’s text, especially when it came to the suicide at its core. Upon joining the team, Farrell recalls, “It didn’t take me very long to get into it” and rewrite the final third to dwell more on the human side of the story.
After Twain’s death at age 85 in August 2016, Jeffrey Richards took the lead in producing the project. A November 2017 reading with Radcliffe gave Richards the confidence to forge ahead as the play made its way to Broadway. With Farrell tied up with his teaching duties at New York University, Kareken and Murrell worked with the director Silverman, dramaturge John Dias and the play’s stars to polish the script during rehearsals in the summer of 2018.
By that time, Donald Trump had risen to the presidency and was making false or misleading claims by the thousands. In January 2017, his counselor Kellyanne Conway infamously coined the phrase “alternative facts.” But as Kareken, Murrell and Farrell all emphasized, that topicality was no more than a happy coincidence. With “Lifespan” now being staged at regional theaters across the country, stories such as the spread of coronavirus misinformation and Rep. George Santos’s (R-N.Y.) résumé fabrications underscore the play’s enduring relevance.
“We’re the luckiest playwrights in the world because we look like geniuses,” Murrell says. “But it had absolutely nothing to do with Trump or Kellyanne or anything like that. We started in 2012, and then things happened in the world. It just happened to converge in a very fortunate way.”
This post is reprinted from a Washington Post story by Thomas Floyd on the opening of The Lifespan of a Fact at the Keegan Theatre.