GLOUCESTER — The very title of “The Lifespan of a Fact’’ reverberates uneasily nowadays. What is the lifespan of a fact, anyway, at a time when the nation’s top elected leader and his enablers are intent on annihilating the notion that there is any such thing?
To an egotistical author in the Gloucester Stage Company production of “The Lifespan of a Fact,’’ facts are, if not irrelevant, at least malleable objects in his quest to capture a larger truth about a 16-year-old boy named Levi Presley who committed suicide by leaping from the observation deck of a Las Vegas hotel-casino.
To the dogged young intern at a prestigious magazine who has been assigned to fact-check the author’s essay — don’t you dare call it an “article,’’ or the author will blow his stack — the relationship of facts to truth is pretty straightforward.
To the magazine’s editor in chief, caught in the middle of a dispute that rapidly escalates from e-mail to telephone to three-way in-person showdown, the dilemma of whether or not to publish the piece pivots upon questions that are as much moral and epistemological as literary and journalistic.
Gloucester Stage is billing this as the first production of “The Lifespan of a Fact’’ since its recent Broadway premiere, which starred Daniel Radcliffe, a.k.a. Harry Potter, along with celebrated stage veterans Cherry Jones and Bobby Cannavale. The problems with the play that were evident in New York remain palpable in Gloucester, but in certain respects it works better in the much smaller venue. Streamlined and scaled down, with reduced star power, “The Lifespan of a Fact’’ can be seen more clearly, for both its virtues and its flaws.
As regards the latter: “The Lifespan of a Fact’’ still feels a bit thin and more than a bit truncated. The authors — the trio of Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell, working from the essay and book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal about their real-life interactions on the Las Vegas piece in question — seem to feel that raising an issue is the same thing as exploring it.
Moreover, as on Broadway, the role of magazine editor Emily Penrose feels frustratingly underdeveloped. That appears to stymie the estimable Lindsay Crouse, who, as Penrose, gives an uncharacteristically tentative performance that is lacking in her usual laser-focused precision. Crouse’s illustrious track record gives every reason for confidence she’ll solve the puzzle as the play’s run continues, but the script does her no favors.
Thanks to the scenario’s built-in conflict, however, “The Lifespan of a Fact’’ does gather momentum after a sluggish start. The comic moments land with decent regularity, and director Sam Weisman capitalizes on the play’s strengths by intensifying the focus on the scorpions-in-a-bottle clash — of personalities as well as principles — between author D’Agata, played by Mickey Solis, and intern Fingal, portrayed by Derek Speedy. (Side note: “The Lifespan of a Fact’’ represents a reunion for Weisman, Crouse, and Solis, who collaborated on the fine 2017 Gloucester Stage production of Lucy Prebble’s “The Effect.’’)
Appearing at first to be a nerdy, deferential pushover, intern Fingal proves to possess the tenacity of a terrier, and once he starts to notice discrepancies in D’Agata’s essay, he just won’t let go. No detail is too small; he challenges the author on the essay’s account of how many seconds the youth fell, how full the moon was that night, how many strip clubs were in Las Vegas, how another suicide by a young person that night occurred. As Fingal uncovers one departure after another from the facts, Speedy’s deftly modulated performance lets us see, bit by bit, the stiff spine beneath Fingal’s skittish exterior.
While Solis is less physically intimidating than Cannavale — hell, half the players in the NFL are less physically intimidating than Cannavale — Solis ably compensates with his own brand of seething intensity. The glowering ferocity of his D’Agata adds to the incongruity of the writer’s confrontations with Fingal, which are quick and sharp enough to throw off sparks whose light is sometimes illuminating.
Still, when the ending arrives, it is with an abruptness that leaves you with the feeling that “The Lifespan of a Fact’’ has more story to tell and more to say about accuracy, facts, truth. As we’re reminded by the daily torrent of falsehoods, there’s no more important conversation to have.
THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT
Play by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell. Based on the book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. Directed by Sam Weisman. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, Gloucester, through Sept. 22. Tickets $15-$48, 978-281-4433, www.gloucesterstage.com