So when I read that Human Error, a world premiere by Eric Pfeffinger at the Garner Galleria, is about two couples — one liberal, one conservative — thrown together because of a mix-up at a fertility clinic, I was skeptical. The play, developed at last year’s New Play Summit at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, sounded like a sitcom dealing in the shallowest kind of stereotype. We’d see that the right-wingers are essentially good people and — since playwrights tend to be self-lacerating liberals themselves — that the leftists are blinkered and humorless; everyone would come together in the end. But miracle of miracles, that’s not what Pfeffinger has written. Well, he has in a way, but with nuance, intelligence, moments of depth and some interesting twists.
Though it has hosted some wonderfully witty shows through the years, the Garner Galleria is more often a venue for content-free, low-cost musicals; this is the first DCPA Theatre Company production here. The set and costumes for Human Error are first-rate, as is Shelley Butler’s direction, and this show has me thinking that new DCPA Theatre Company artistic director Chris Coleman may have interesting plans for this comfy, come-after-work-for-a-drink cabaret space.
There’s a lot of funny business as Jim persuades Keenan to visit Cabela’s and admire the mounted lion’s head on the wall, and quinoa-loving Madelyn worries about her child’s development when Heather admits to an occasional beer. But after a while the couples find common ground and even do a little wary bonding — there’s a wonderful scene that finds Keenan and Heather belting out a gospel hymn together — and you’re starting to think the kumbaya reconciliation of right and left is close at hand. But remember Keenan’s strictures on the structure of comedy? You’ve been warned there has to be a reversal. Perhaps a crazy credulity-stretching development after that. Then, finally, a moment of transcendence. Check, check and check.
What makes Human Error work is not so much that the characters find areas of agreement; in all honesty, Pfeffinger doesn’t make that too hard: Jim isn’t viciously racist; he doesn’t object to his wife carrying a child of color. And it’s not as if he’d shot that lion himself in a protected preserve (but what would he and Heather have done had a pair of lesbians arrived to claim the baby instead of happily married Madelyn and Keenan?). No, what shines most brightly through the text is the idea that forced to face their deepest feelings about birth, love, loss and hope, these very different people discover — beneath all the political palaver — the universal humanity that they share.
Human Error, presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through June 24, Garner Galleria Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.