What about the baby?
An ‘epic screw-up’ kick starts play about division in America
Human Error, the play by Eric Pfeffinger now in its world premiere performance at Chico’s Blue Room Theatre, begins with a disturbing quandary: A husband and wife receiving in-vitro fertilization learn that, because of “human error,” their fertilized embryo has mistakenly been planted in the uterus of another woman.
The story proceeds from the moment in the fertility clinic office when Dr. Hoskins (Sean Constantine) informs Keenan (Dave Myers) and Madelyn (Annie Fischer) about the accidental switcheroo. Shocked and perplexed, they go to the home of the married couple who are pregnant with their baby, where they discover they have absolutely nothing in common.
Madelyn and Keenen are liberal city folk, university employees who are stereotypically “blue state” in their political and social views. As if to underline their liberal bent, the playwright has made the couple biracial.
Jim (Sean Green) and Heather (Delisa Freistadt), in contrast, are stereotypically “red state.” They live in a McMansion in a subdivision of McMansions; he owns a string of car stereo stores and she’s a homemaker; and they are decidedly “pro-life” and determined to carry the baby to term.
This sounds like serious stuff, and it is, but Human Error is as much comedy as drama. In the opening scene, for example, the Dr. Hoskins character is so mortified by the clinic’s mistake that he’s become a simpering fool too flustered even to talk about it with Madelyn and Keenan. I didn’t buy the character as written (I’ve never known a doctor to be so pathetically dumbstruck), but Constantine is very funny in the role.
In an interview for a theater blog, Midwest native Pfeffinger said his initial impulse with the play was “to write about an event that is very upsetting for its characters—an epic screw-up at a fertility clinic—but make it as funny as possible.”
The play is particularly relevant today because it’s about the many ways we separate ourselves from those we perceive as not sharing our values, protecting our self-identities in echo chambers of our own making. The two couples portrayed here would have gone on indefinitely living in their separate universes were it not for the baby growing in Heather’s womb.
In some ways, that child is the most important character in the play. She forces the couples to transcend their prejudices and recognize the human commonalities they share. How this personal growth will affect the outcome of a situation that would test the wisdom of a Solomon remains unknown until play’s end, but the progression—away from distrust and dislike to trust and a kind of love—is enjoyable to watch.
Individually, all of the actors did a good job when I saw the play Friday night (Feb. 17). But there were times when I felt they weren’t fully working together, that they were just delivering lines instead of truly connecting.
Perhaps we can blame it on the play. In his effort to dig comedy out of the mud of human suffering, Pfeffinger creates caricatures instead of characters.
The challenge to the actors, and director Erin Tarabini, is to make the two aspects of the play, its comedy and its drama, mesh smoothly. I suspect that, by the time Human Error’s run ends, the actors will have mastered its dynamics. In any event, it’s well worth seeing.