'Human Error' review: Original premiere is all over the place at The Purple Rose
Courtesy of Sean Carter Photography/Purple Rose
If you assembled all the hot button topics of the last two years: social inequality, abortion, politics, gun reform, and threw it into a blender, it would come out looking like “Human Error,” a new play that just world premiered at The Purple Rose Theatre Company. Written by Eric Pfeffinger, “Human Error” wants to be an absurdist comedy with real world sensibilities and not only doesn’t it work, some punchlines are incredibly offensive. Of course, tackling sensitive issues shouldn’t be off limits and, quite frankly, theatre could use more boundary pushing plays, but “Human Error” never picks a lane nor makes complete sense of the areas it's exploring. At times, I couldn’t tell if it was a comedy, drama, or intimate character study considering how frequent the script bounced among genres. It’s also okay to acknowledge that sometimes, things aren’t for you and in this case, “Human Error” fits the bill.
From the start, the ability to suspend disbelief, even in a comedic setting, is a slippery slope. It begins with a liberal, Ann Arbor couple, Madelyn (Meghan VanArsdalen) and Keenan (Henrí Franklin) discussing with their fertility doctor (Kevin Theis) a rather strange occurrence. In what’s initially played for laughs, the doctor reveals he screwed up (hence the title “Human Error”) and accidently put Madelyn and Keenan’s embryo into someone else. How that could possibly happen and/or the legal repercussions aren’t explored, but it sets up this awkward ten-minute conversation where the doctor tries uncomfortably laughing it off. Yikes.
To make matters worse (or convenient depending on how you look at it), the couple who inherited Madelyn and Keenan’s child are NRA loving, pro life, capital G.O.D. worshiping conservatives with an unhealthy Ohio State football obsession. That’d be Big Jim (Alex Leydenfrost) and Heather (Kristin Shields) who decide, out of the goodness of their hearts, to carry the baby to term. If you can get past the idea these two fundamentally different couples would ever interact after the first meeting (especially as Big Jim, in one of the show's cringiest moments, blows up about his hatred of Michigan fans that ends with him, uh, casually dropping the R word) then your suspension of disbelief goes beyond what I can give.
Once we’re through those wobbly introductions (Big Jim talks about his truck, guns, and affinity for “Top Gun” while Heather is more holistic and believes in divine connection), “Human Error” devolves into a series of scattershot vignettes where the characters, at no fault of the actors in the roles, act and behave oddly. Additionally, the show employs a lagging narrative device designed to say we’re all connected spiritually which, on the surface, is moderately engaging, but the show never gives it the payoff it deserves.
Likewise for the controversial debates thrown around, including half baked attempts at explaining the definition of being pro choice opposite pro life. If the script were stronger, it would get me invested in these impassioned discussions, but the individuals, in their broad caricatures and stereotypes, aren’t believable. Nothing seems organic, especially the slapstick, out-of-nowhere physical comedy bits added in between the hotly contested arguments.
It's as if the show assumes audiences don’t know this country is divided and though “Human Error” amicably wants to bring a centralized approach to these issues, the failure at humanizing the characters beyond their beliefs makes for an underwhelming performance. And to hit the nail on the head, the curtain call music is “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” on the off chance it wasn’t obvious the show’s position on a metaphorical and ideological level.
From a performance and technical standpoint, VanArsdalen, Franklin, Leydenfrost, Shields and Theis are exceptional and director Lynch R. Travis, alongside scenic designer Bartley H Bauer, costumer Suzanne Young, lightning designer Matt Taylor, and sound designer Robert W Hubbard, create a solid canvas that’s emblematic of the Purple Rose’s high standards. “Human Error,” on the other hand, is a rare blemish for the usually reliable company. Audience didn’t seem too defeated and, from what I could see, were having a good time. I’m glad they did. I never want someone to feel like they’ve wasted their time even if they disagree with me. At its core, that’s what “Human Error” is trying to accomplish, so if you’re still curious, see it and make up your own mind.
HUMAN ERROR continues through March 18th at The Purple Rose Theatre Company. For showtimes and to purchase tickets. Click here.