Denver Center show pokes at political divide in a highly personal way
There’s no long build to the massive screwup that fuels “Human Error,” a comedy now making its world premiere at the Denver Center Theater Company. The IVF clinic doctor wishes it weren’t so, but no beating around the bush can absolve him of the unpleasant task before him as the play begins: He must tell aspiring parents Keenan and Madelyn that their fertilized embryo has – oops! – been implanted in another woman.
That’s just the first of a cascading series of events that causes the mellow Keenan (Larry Bates) and ultra-high-strung Madelyn (Kimberly Gilbert) to seriously question the wisdom of disrupting their calm lives with the introduction of a child. And now the baby is … where? Why, it’s in the womb of someone named Heather (Marissa McGowan), so what happens then?
With little recourse, Keenan and Madelyn must now pay a visit to the McMansion-y neighborhood where Heather and her husband Jim live. A mixed-race liberal couple with lightweight jobs in a university town, they soon discover their baby is being carried by a couple on the other side of the political divide. Jim (a great turn by Joe Coots) has a big shiny truck, a basement full of guns and an over-the-top affection for the Ohio State Buckeyes football team (although he’s never been to that or any other college). Heather is a seasoned mom with three boys, an abiding love of Jesus and the kind of Fox News political views from which Madelyn and Keenan have largely insulated themselves.
And now they must all get along, somehow, for Heather has made an extraordinary decision: She will carry the baby for Madelyn and turn it over after the birth.
Playwright Eric Pfeffinger has a wonderful time running the couples through the blender of our American experience, putting them out of their element and demonstrating how fragmented our country has become. Jim, who sells car stereos and whose main interests are football and hunting, can’t even get his head around Keenan’s job at a rival university: researching the effects of comedy on society. Jim’s love of football and guns is equally mystifying to Keenan. But the two men both have relatively easygoing personalities, and before long Jim has Keenan shopping for hunting gear at Cabela’s while Keenan tries out some academic theories of comedy on him.
Meanwhile, Heather has agreed to let Madelyn teach her some yoga basics, although she can’t resist posing questions about Madelyn’s “godless” life and the degree of readiness the liberals have for the realities of parenting.
Ultimately, it’s with the women that the heart of the conflict lies. Fantastic as the uptight liberal, Gilbert imbues Madelyn with a potpourri of nervous tics, half-finished words and thoughts and a fortress-like set of political beliefs that don’t leave much room for compromise. As Heather, McGowan plays a salt-of-the-earth blonde who nevertheless possesses much of the practical wisdom Madelyn lacks. “Fast friends” may be an exaggeration, but the two couples find they actually enjoy each other’s company and feel like they’re on a beautiful, wacky ride toward the shared goal of bringing a child into the world.
Pfeffinger’s script hits its high point when the topic of choice is broached between Madelyn and Heather. Isn’t it obvious, Heather notes, that were the shoe on the other foot, Madelyn would have aborted the pregnancy after learning it was the wrong embryo? Isn’t Madelyn fortunate that Heather is pro-life and thus never would have considered that path?
Whatever your stance is on choice, the argument that ensues is a brilliantly constructed illustration of why abortion remains one of our most intractable social questions. Heather’s rock-solid logic twists Madelyn into knots, and it’s only the deus ex machina of labor pains that prevents the whole situation from devolving past redemption.
There’s one more final twist in the script that turns everything on its head once again, a wicked little left turn from Pfeffinger that leaves the audience reeling.
Plays like “Human Error” provide much-needed lenses on the degree to which the U.S. has splintered into tribal factions. Woudn’t we all get along better if we just spent a little more time together – listening to NPR or visiting Cabela’s? “Human Error” doesn’t come to any definitive conclusion, although it gives some glimmers of hope among a good deal of laughs.