Review: Human Error Births Hope for Understanding (and Laughs)

Marissa McGowan as Heather in Human Error.
It’s a constant theme in this country that people on opposite sides of the political spectrum must learn to understand each other, that political parties should cooperate and all of us learn to moderate our opinions and meet in the middle. This is based on the false premise that beliefs are binary. I used to tell my students at the University of Colorado that I never wanted to hear the phrase “both sides of the issue” again. Significant issues rarely have two sides. Many have dozens. Some have only one.

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.

click to enlarge The very different people in Human Error. - ADAMSVISCOM
The very different people in Human Error.
Keenan (a humorously expressive Larry Bates) is an academic who researches comedy — which leads to some pungent analysis applied to this comic play itself, its techniques and pitfalls. His wife, Madelyn (Kimberly Gilbert, edgy and vulnerable), once had academic ambitions, too, but left the university to teach yoga. The play begins with their visit to the clinic, where they learn from bumbling Dr. Hoskins (played with perfect comic timing by Wayne Kennedy) that their embryo has been mistakenly placed in the womb of another woman. That woman is hyper-religious Heather, married to gun-toting, football-loving conservative Jim. Keenan, who’s black, starts worrying when he and Madelyn pull up in Jim and Heather’s driveway and he realizes he’s in a wealthy, all-white neighborhood. But in many ways, Madelyn is the more prejudiced of the two. But Jim and Heather greet them with warmth, tension ebbs, and Heather announces she’s willing to carry Madelyn’s child to term and then return her to Madelyn. Joe Coots is appropriately stolid as Jim; as played by Marissa McGowan, Heather morphs from a seemingly simpering, conventional wife to a woman of great kindness and strength. Somehow these people will have to reach consensus.

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,