‘Human Error,” a play by Eric Pfeffinger having its second-ever production at West Windsor’s Pegasus Theater, takes unexpected turns in two ways. One gives depth and texture to a piece that seems at first as if it’s going to revolve around a single premise or joke. The second emphasizes issues or ideas that give uneven weight to a show that is working just fine as a standard comedy.
The depth and texture, unsurprisingly, make Pfeffinger’s work more interesting and give it a chance to address a major social malaise of our time, the judgment of others based on political views or lifestyle choices. The uneven weight gets in the way by contriving the contention already built into “Human Error’s” situation and having it jump out from the blue in a manner that unnecessarily jars.
In general, Pfeffinger’s highest sensibility wins the day. Though one must slog through a preachy sequence or three, it’s worth it to enjoy the majority of “Human Error,” which moves its plot, make its points, and contains a lot of shrewd, honestly earned laughs that show Pfeffinger’s mettle as a writer and a comedian.
Pfeffinger and his play are helped by Jennifer Nasta Zefutie’s astute direction that understands the originality of the piece and gets quickly and solidly to its core, and by an excellent cast that maximizes “Human Error’s” inherent humor and lets comedy prevail at a time when one fears the play will slip into a polemic and put trendy politics ahead of the fine observations that make Pfeffinger’s work so ultimately satisfying.
Pre-judgment, more than prejudice, is the crux of “Human Error.” Two couples, one intellectual liberals who can be self-righteously smug about their claimed ethical and moral superiority, and one outdoorsy right-leaning types who treasure trips to Cabela and think religion is important, are thrust together via a negligent mistake at a fertility clinic. The egg fertilized by the liberal pair is cavalierly, and unapologetically, implanted in the womb of the conservative woman.
The surmise is “Human Error” will spend its stage time having the couples hash out the thorny details of their predicament. Pfeffinger is better than that. He efficiently and hilariously blitzes through matters such as which pair will keep the baby, if the carrier of the child — a girl — will have any place in her life, and if the astonished surrogate will agree to carry the embryo to term.
Cavils about the baby, its birth, and aftermath are not Pfeffinger’s aim. He is more concerned with the way the couples react to and interact with each other and neatly weds comedy with keen social commentary.
The best part is Pfeffinger satirizing the current trend to mistrust and fear anyone who doesn’t conform to the orthodox way of thinking he or she does, liberal or conservative.
The right-wing couple actually take the liberals in stride. Tension in “Human Errors” always derives from the left. Yet you can see each couple evaluate the other’s car and clothes while listening for buzzwords that can trigger complaints or claims of being offended.
The conservatives are more relaxed, but everyone is on edge because they know they are judging and being judged. Each couple is trying to behave creditably for the good of the imminent baby, but both think of the other couple as just that, “the other.”
Pfeffinger has broached a subject that plagues current society, the rejection of people based on their politics, the idea that someone who has different beliefs or votes a different way cannot be a friend.
Deftly, Pfeffinger shows the couples finding common ground and accepting each other as fellow humans above all else. This coming together is the best part of “Human Errors,” and it’s both enjoyable and entertaining to see it unfold.
Trouble comes when the playwright decides to add dramatic conflict by having an argument over a political matter. The impetus for this argument comes from nowhere and turns into a major crise. The conflict concerns abortion but seems introduced just so the characters can have a piqued discussion on the subject. It, and a few similar scenes, mars the breezy flow of Pfeffinger’s work, which succeeds better when one scene springs naturally from the previous.
“Human Error” doesn’t have to ramp up controversy. One of its virtues is how well Pfeffinger introduces his main subject, that if people get to know each other and regard each other as human, the error of deciding in advance about possibilities of friendship or other relationships might disappear or seem foolish, and how easily yet completely he explores it. Subtlety and natural storytelling are working. So is a comic framework. Why tamper with that success with sudden bouts of ham-handedness?
In Zefutie’s fast, funny production, the liberals always seem to be the ones instigating any snobbery or disdain. Normally, I would wonder at the imbalance and ask why the conservative couple do not seem as judgmental or obtrusive, but with the cast’s pace and command the question lingers without really mattering.
The Pegasus cast is uniformly excellent. Marissa Wolf conveys an accepting, salt-of-the-earth nature that casts her as a peacemaker and gives a lot of texture to Heather, the conservative wife and carrier of the child. Justin Derry is a master of expression and makes it fun to read what’s going through his mind on his face. Kevin Palardy is irresistibly “hail fellow, well met,” as the conservative husband. Christine Penney is wonderful as the skeptic, most strident of the crew, the one most likely to put politics above anything else. Peter Reimann is beautifully evasive and a comic joy as the incompetent doctor.
Chrissy Johnson’s costuming, from yoga outfits to hunting gear, is both on target and witty. Jeffrey Branin and Rachel Langley provide a versatile set.
Human Error, Pegasus Theater Company, West Windsor Arts Center, 952 Alexander Road, Princeton Junction. Through Sunday, September 30. Thursday at 1 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m. $26. 609-759-0045 or www.pegasustheatrenj.org.