'Human Error': In comedy, your pain is our punchline


With this new comedy about a botched embryo implant, playwright posits: To err is human … to laugh divine

By John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist

In the DCPA Theatre Company’s world-premiere comedy Human Error, a young couple goes to what they think is a routine appointment at a fertility clinic only to discover that their fertilized embryo has been mistakenly implanted into somebody else. 

So, obviously … it’s a comedy. 

“You know: Another one of your standard-issue switched-fertilized-embryo farces,” jocular Midwestern playwright Eric Pfeffinger says with a laugh. 

It’s a funny premise … but you haven’t even gotten to the punchline yet. 

“So one couple are blue-state, latte-sipping, NPR-listening liberals,” Pfeffinger said. “And the other are NRA-cardholding, pickup-truck-driving, red-state conservatives.” 

Human Error rehearsal. Photo by John MooreThat’s the punchline: Two couples who, under normal circumstances, would never choose to be in the same room with each other, now will have to spend nine months building some kind of a family — and hopefully not killing each other along the way. 

As they say in comedy, your pain is another guy’s pleasure. 

(Rehearsal photo, from left, Kimberly Gilbert, Marissa McGowan and Wayne Kennedy. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.) 

Human Error is a comedy about the state of the nation currently and the political polarization we are all grappling with,” Pfeffinger said of his play, which was featured at the Denver Center’s 2017 Colorado New Play Summit only a month after Donald Trump’s inauguration. And, well, there’s been a bit more rancor since then.  

“If anything, Americans’ inclination to isolate ourselves within comfortable ideological silos has only increased,” Pfeffinger said back on an April day when the national headlines were dominated by the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Mark Zuckerberg testifying before Congress. 

The bad news is: Political, social and cultural polarization is just a given in America right now.

“But the good news is: The worse things get, the better it is for my play,” Pfeffinger said with a smile. “So … yay?”

Geography, technology and social status have made it easy for Americans to isolate themselves from anyone who doesn’t already think the same way they do, Pfeffinger said. That means we are only rarely confronted with contradictory or challenging points of view. But Pfeffinger has the power of the playwright in his fingers: He can put any two people he wants face-to-face on a stage. Or, in this case, he can put any two couples he wants face-to-face in the same bumbling fertility doctor’s office.

“None of the people in my play know anybody else like the other couple,” Pfeffinger said. “They don’t have to confront the reality of someone who thinks differently until they are thrown together by this clerical mix-up at the clinic.” The play is not so much about the ethics of fertility technology, Pfeffinger says — as dramatic as that can be. “It’s more about the echo chambers we Americans often find ourselves in, and the defense mechanisms we adopt when we are forced to step outside our comfort zones and acknowledge that there are other people in the world who are not just like us.”

But remember, Pfeffinger said his play is not a Lifetime movie event. He said it was funny. And not nasty, David Mamet kind of funny. “It’s BIG funny,” he said. “When I first heard about this kind of thing actually happening at fertility clinics, my first response was, ‘Oh that sounds like an episode of Three’s Company: “Wait, that’s not your embryo — that’s my embryo!” And … cut to commercial.’

Human Error draws explicit connections to various kinds of classic comedy, particularly the TV sitcom, which is what I grew up mainlining.”  

So really, Pfeffinger had no choice but to take a comic approach to the subject. It’s all he knows. 

Human Error: Five funs things we learned at first rehearsal

“Everyithing I write is a comedy. That’s how I function,” said Pfeffinger, who has past lives as both an improv comedian and a newspaper cartoonist. “Let’s take this thing that does not seem particularly funny to the people it is happening to and find the humor n it.”

And after all that prolonged division and unrest in the country, he said, now might be a really good time for us to laugh. 

“A lot of people embrace comedy as an opportunity to escape from what is stressful about the world,” Pfeffinger said. “I happen to believe that comedy is one of the best ways to confront difficult ideas and to examine and articulate those ideas. Comedy lowers your defenses by making you laugh.” 

Human Error castPfeffinger has continued to hone the play in the 15 months since the Colorado New Play Summit, in close consultation with director Shelley Butler and dramaturg Sarah Lunnie. But not with the intent of either making the play more overtly funny or politically relevant.

“Tonally, structurally and thematically, the play is pretty much the same now as it was at the Summit,” he said. “It’s more a matter of helping the play to become more of what it’s already wanting to be. That includes making the funny stuff funnier and the human stuff, uh, human-er.”

Human Error will become the first Theatre Company season offering ever staged in the Garner Galleria Theatre, which will provide an intimate, cabaret-like atmosphere that will be new for many Theatre Company audiences. 

“This is a play where the comedy comes from the audience connecting with these very different, very recognizable people,” Pfeffinger said. “I think where the audience and the performers are palpably sharing the same space and breathing the same air, that’s where comedy thrives.”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Human Error at Tommy Photo by John Moore
From left: Kimberly Gilbert, Director Shelley Butler, Playwright Eric Pfeffinger, Joe Coots, and Marissa McGowan of ‘Human Error,’ at the opening of DCPA Theatre Company’s ‘The Who’s Tommy.’ Not pictured: Larry Bates and Wayne Kennedy. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Human Error: Cast

Human Error: Creatives

  • Directed by Shelley Butler
  • Scenic Design by Lisa M. Orzolek
  • Costume Design by Sara Ryung Clement
  • Lighting Design by Charles R. MacLeod
  • Sound Design by Jason Ducat
  • Dramaturgy by Sarah Lunnie
  • Stage management by Christopher C. Ewing
  • Assistant Stage Management by D. Lynn Reiland
  • Casting by Elissa Myers Casting

Video: Our interview with Eric Pfeffinger at the Colorado New Play Summit: 

Video by David Lenk and John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Human Error: Ticket information

HumanError_show_thumbnail_160x160After an unfortunate mix-up by their blundering fertility doctor, Heather is mistakenly impregnated with the wrong child. Now two very different couples face sharing an uproarious nine-month odyssey of culture shock, clashing values, changing attitudes and unlikely – but heartfelt – friendships.

  • Presented by DCPA Theatre Company
  • Performances May 18 through June 24
  • Garner Galleria Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
  • Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

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