When playwright David Murrell read a disparaging review about a 2012 book called “The Lifespan of a Fact,” he was intrigued by the intensity of the newspaper critic’s viewpoint.
He passed on the review to his friend and fellow playwright Jeremy Kareken, who also took interest in the critic’s reaction.
“It was a negative review and kind of an angry one,” Kareken said. “We are fascinated with how narrative works and how facts work and how we have come to be so counterfactual. David suggested this as a project we should work on.”
The two playwrights, longtime friends who met at the University of Chicago, bought the book and read it cover to cover.
“It made us laugh so heavily,” Kareken said. “We thought it was one of the funniest books we’ve ever read. We didn’t understand why the reviewer got so upset. Once we saw the anger over the minutia of the detail, we got more and more interested.”
“The Lifespan of a Fact” — the pair’s stage adaptation of the book — is described as a “comedy of conflict.” It dabbles with the notions of truth in writing when conveying a story in an essay format, which differs from journalism and its news-gathering ethics.
In a theatrical coup, Gloucester Stage presents the first regional premiere of the play, which closed its Broadway run earlier this year. It runs through Sept. 22 and stars Lindsay Crouse, Mickey Solis and Derek Speedy.
The topic of the original essay on which the book was based — the suicide of 16-year-old Levi Presley, who jumped from the 1,149-foot Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas in 2002 — was weighty.
In the play, though, a comic interplay erupts between a tech-savvy editorial assistant tasked with fact-checking the story and an accomplished author whose work is being questioned by a newcomer. When one imagines a 130-page spreadsheet resulting from the fact-checking of a 15-page essay, the humor becomes apparent in this version of the story.
The tête-à-tête ultimately involves a trio when the editor-in-chief gets involved in refereeing the ongoing literary impasse.
The fact-checking collides with the author’s narrative in a tale that is not fully fact, nor fiction. The story is true, albeit not in all its incidental details. But this kind of writing has historical roots dating back millennia, noted John D’Agata, who co-authored the book with the fact-checker, the Harvard-educated Jim Fingal.
A native of the Cape Cod area, D’Agata said that he is thrilled that the first regional production of “Lifespan” will take place in Massachusetts.
D’Agata and the playwrights hoped to spark a larger conversation about the literary continuum between truth and fiction, and they have relished watching the reactions of audiences who took in the Broadway run.
“The best part was just listening to people walking out of the theater having the very conversations we were hoping the audience would have about where they find themselves on that continuum of fact,” D’Agata said. “You’d see partners walking out disagreeing about what is the right thing to do with this piece of writing.”
At times, audience members would fall on one side or the other. At other times, the audience was evenly split.
“When we could hear conversations in the restaurants afterward, that made us the happiest,” Kareken said. “We love igniting that kind of argument.”
A series of serendipities
If D’Agata hadn’t been in Las Vegas at the time of the Stratosphere tragedy in 2002, the initial essay may never have been written.
It was his mother who brought him to Las Vegas for a period of time. While helping her out, he went through the training to volunteer for a suicide hotline.
D’Agata was working the night that Presley jumped, and he recalled a call that had come in earlier from a distraught young man. He worried that the caller may have been the victim, but later found out that the incidents weren’t related.
Still, D’Agata’s involvement with the suicide hotline and prevention training prompted him to delve into the subject and to discover the rampant rate of suicide in Las Vegas.
“It’s a topic the city does not want to advertise, but it is epidemic,” said D’Agata, an English professor and director of the nonfiction writing program at University of Iowa.
That research became an essay published in 2010 titled “What Happens There: Aside from heart attacks, strokes and three types of cancer, the thing most likely to kill you in Las Vegas is yourself.”
Fingal’s involvement as fact-checker and his lengthy review of the minutia that ensued led him and D’Agata to see the merits of publishing a book about the emails and conversations that resulted from that process — albeit in a somewhat dramatized version.
It was the scathing review of the book by a New York critic that ultimately captured the attention of the two playwrights, Murrell and Kareken, and led to the stage adaptation.
The serendipitous nature of “The Lifespan of a Fact” continued in its journey to Gloucester. If Sam Weisman, the director of the Gloucester Stage production, hadn’t decided to see the play on a whim while in New York City, he never would have seen his friend’s name in the playbill, which further piqued his interest.
Weisman’s late friend, Norman Twain, a Hollywood film producer who turned to Broadway, is the one who approached D’Agata about the possibility of turning his book into a play.
Years earlier, while Weisman was an actor in Los Angeles, he said Twain encouraged him to pursue directing. Now, Weisman saw that Twain was credited with the original production of “Lifespan.”
Moved by the Broadway production of “Lifespan,” Weisman, who has gone on to direct for feature films, television and theater, inquired about the show’s plans beyond New York because he was interested in staging a regional production.
“It’s a really unusual play,” said Weisman, who made his Gloucester Stage directorial debut in 2017. “This is a great play for Gloucester because it’s a smart play, an intellectual play. ... Once you get into the crux of the play, you see the conflict between the head and the heart, between intellect and soul.
“I felt it was so timely because it delves into what is a person’s story, the story of a life and who gets to write the story and how does one write that story and what is truth. Who can arbitrate what the truth is and how it gets distorted. But it is in no way political.”
Weisman, who now lives in the Boston area, viewed the play as an archetypal theatrical situation.
“The whole idea of the fact-checker is this clever younger guy who is conflicting with an older writer, more set in his ways, representing the past,” Weisman said. “And the new guy with all his tech devices and the internet representing what the world is now — he is the disruptor, the clever servant, kind of Moliere.
“I understand these tropes and can apply them to how I see the play,” he said. “I was very moved by the essay and the desire to allow art to live. For me, it’s about what is a piece of creation and how important it is to let a creator create.”’
Even though much of the book was written in dialogue, Kareken said that it was challenging for the playwrights to adapt, “to write a comedy out of the topics of suicide and proofreading.”
The playwrights do not take a position, but view the work as a “lyrical essay,” he said. While based on a real experience, the story has been dramatized for both print and for stage.
“I’ve seen it under literary criticism and that’s not accurate,” Kareken said. “The book is a bit non-classifiable. The essay at the center is classifiable as an essay. We wanted to present this discussion because it’s one we have a lot in the nonfiction writing community — where exactly is that line?”
When asked about the difference between journalism and the essay form, D’Agata said that some would reason there is no line and the standard of fact is the same, whether presented in a memoir or in The New York Times.
“If you call yourself a journalist, you should adhere to the facts, and there are others, and I include myself in this category, who want to embrace the traditional heritage of the essay, which has a literacy history that goes back thousands of years,” D’Agata said. “It’s a history that I think would shock a lot of people given the liberties that writers throughout history have taken with the form.”
Interestingly enough, D’Agata and Fingal remain friends.
“We like to say we are two friendly and nerdy guys who found this issue very fascinating, but recognized the conversations we were having did not make great art, two guys mostly agreeing with other,” D’Agata said. “So for the sake of the book, we amped up the discussion so our characters took more extreme sides on the continuum of fact. My hope when putting the book together was that the reader would find both positions unpalatable and therefore would find themselves having to figure on their own where on the continuum their beliefs really were.”
IF YOU GO
What: “The Lifespan of a Fact”
When: Through Sept. 22. Performances are Wednesdays through Fridays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m.; and Sundays, 2 p.m.
Where: Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E. Main St., Gloucester
How much: $15 to $48
More information: www.gloucesterstage.com or 978-281-4433