**** Stars

By Adam Rafferty

 It was a dark and stormy Melbourne winter’s night when we huddled in the Arts Centre’s Fairfax Studio to watch a crafty examination of the importance of facts in storytelling. Well, more truthfully, it wasn’t a stormy night, but for the purposes of capturing your imagination it can add some value to craft the tale in such terms. The ethics of imbuing reportage with that kind of ‘colouring in’ is the crux of this thoughtful and funny play about a fact-checker, an essayist and his editor.

When New York based literary magazine editor Emily Penrose (Nadine Garner) requests the services of the best intern available to quickly fact check an essay she’s rushing to print in 5 days, she gets more than she bargained for in the fastidious Jim Fingal (Karl Richmond). His efforts to impress and his tendency towards anal retentiveness, soon find him at an impasse over the facts. After Emily dismisses his concerns and tells him to trust in his professionalism, Jim decides the best solution, considering the time pressures, is to go to the source of the information – the irascible Las Vegas based writer of the essay, John D’Agata (Steve Mouzakis). Naturally D’Agata takes exception to young Jim’s notes and when Emily finds out her intern is playing with fire, the only solution is to get out to Nevada and force a solution, if one is possible.

Based on a book about a true story, and very loosely based on real people, the actual Jim Fingal was interning in 2005 when he was tasked with fact checking John D’Agata’s essay. The pair decided to make the story of their working relationship into a book that was eventually published in 2012 and was optioned for the stage, finally making its winding path to Broadway in 2018 with Bobby Cannavale as D’Agata and Daniel Radcliffe as Jim. But the time invested by writers Gordon Farrell, Jeremy Kareken and David Murrell in adaptation proved worth the effort for the brilliantly realised result. Perhaps having the same number of writers as characters was the key to why the arguments posed on stage are so engaging and credible, if not quite as smart as they make out to be.

Making his MTC debut as Jim Fingal, Richmond is a disarming performer. Neurotically obsessed with only publishing the ‘truth’ Fingal’s fixations are exhausting, but Richmond’s effortless delivery and impeccable timing deliver a pitch perfect performance. Mouzakis is the picture of a grizzled writer whose life has known better days and whose wick for patience is extremely short, although he does somewhat lack the physical presence to be a true threat to the young intern. As an MTC regular, it’s nice to see Garner maturing into these more senior roles. Her take on the magazine editor is strong, sassy and put together, thanks also to Kat Chan’s stylish costume designs. Andrew Bailey’s set design is suitably stark for the New York magazine office and gritty for the down trodden Las Vegas home of D’Agata’s deceased mother.

Direction from Petra Kalive bounces along for a spritely 90-minute run time, delivering great comic timing and never leaving a moment for the audience to lose interest in the wordy arguments made by the protagonists.

It does seem like there’s a slight lost opportunity created by this play to make a grander statement about the importance of facts in our post-truth world. Instead the question that is raised, but never answered, is ‘where is the balance between facts and artistic expression?’ Or rather, how much room is there for poetic license when the basis for the story is a real event? It’s the sort of thing that’s hard to legislate, but the debate is easy to enjoy, and that I’m sure is true.

Image: Jeff Busby