Posted on 01/30/2019 9:48am by Jennifer Madigan
by ROB TUKEY, SPECIAL TO THE SUN JOURNAL
January 30, 2019
“Whether I am ill or well, in high spirits or low, I am always equal to tragedy, but comedy—well, that is a serious business.” – David Garrick, actor (1717–1779)
LEWISTON — Comedy is serious business in “Human Error,” the new and captivating play by Eric Pfeffinger in production through Feb. 3 at The Public Theater. The unlikely laughs here arise from the yin and yang inherent to the human condition. Humor seeks to address a wide variety of contemporary concerns using broad comedy shaded in pathos.
The stage is set in gray tones with minimal props except for the Yin and Yang symbols that dominate the background. As the pendulum swings from taut scene to scene, a symbolic plea for neutrality is evoked in drumbeats bridging light to dark to light again.
But to the laughs:
An exasperatingly incompetent and insensitive gynecologist, Dr. Hoskins (Dale Place) has somehow implanted one couple’s fertilized embryo mistakenly in the wife of another couple. Clearly, Dr. Hoskins is a literary foil needed to launch an otherwise implausible but hilarious plot.
Madelyn (Laura Baranik), uptight and rigid, is rightly and righteously outraged as the wife whose fertilized egg is misplaced (“you implanted my WHAT in WHO?”) while her husband, Keenan (Terrell Wheeler), somewhat of an appeaser, tries to mediate and deal with the bizarre twist in their hope to become new parents. After a riotous confrontation with the doctor, the couple comes to grips with their dilemma.
Finally concluding that contacting the couple who now may bear their first child is warranted, a meeting is arranged.
From the outset, it is clear the couples are polar opposites with regard to almost everything. Jim (Joe Gately) with a personality and physical presence that defines “big” and Heather (Heather Dilley), vivacious and ingenuous, are the materialistic conservative couple who masterfully counterpoint the liberal lifestyle of Madelyn and Keenan.
Oddly, character likeability becomes difficult to ascertain as the uncomfortable affiliation seeks common ground.
Optically an immediate and obvious distinction is Keenan and Madelyn’s interracial marriage. The playwright deliberately addresses this via Jim and Heather only in euphemisms (“you know, they’re…different”). But gratifyingly this becomes inconsequential amongst the humorous potpourri of the couples’ other differences. From the innocuous — college football rivalries — to meatier subjects ranging from the 2nd Amendment to religion, pro-life versus pro-choice, parenting, intellectualism and more, the couples expose their own misconceptions, biases and values. Yet they genuinely seek to share the pregnancy through to birth in some form of congeniality.
Comic timing is critical to the unfolding of the story and the actors all are exceptional in this exacting task with fast-paced dialogue wringing laughter from all sides.
Through a series of vignettes the timeline of the nine-month pregnancy and the evolution of the relationship of the couples between one another and between spouses press forward. The character advancement humorously brings each to a more normal and likeable place. Out of wisdom born of experience Heather’s character slowly emerges as a sort of Madonna and Madelyn begins to “chill.”
A raucous birthing scene re-establishes Dr. Hoskins as the blundering physician least likely to continue in his profession, with uproarious proof. In a conclusive demonstration of the doctor’s ineptness the long awaited child arrives with a surprising turn of events.
Then, a final touching split stage scene poses the inevitable question: Will the couples remain in touch with one another?
With so many differences separating them, is there hope? In this farcical play, who knows?
But I found myself wondering this:
These gifted actors for weeks of rehearsal and then two intense performance hours have intimately interacted with one another. Together they take their well-deserved curtain call.
Then leave the stage to go their own individual ways … or do they?