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Human Error

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Tim Guinee and Meg Gibson
Photo by Monique Carboni.

A tiny piece of metal connected to another tiny piece of metal, put under too much stress at just the wrong time. There's no realistic chance of that happening? Maybe. But the odds stop mattering when the unthinkable happens and there's a plane crash in which no one on board survives - and even someone on the ground is killed. Some things transcend numbers, and defy the "rational" explanations that cold-hearted logic is too willing to provide.

The heart is a perfect example - it doesn't always work the way you wish it did, and sometimes functions too well when you'd prefer it remain dormant. The three characters in Keith Reddin's beautiful but uneven play Human Error, which the Atlantic Theater Company is presenting at Atlantic Stage 2, all learn the hard way that yearnings can't be parceled out sensibly any more than they may be repressed. Love, like scientific truth, has a way of getting out when you least want it to.

It takes Reddin a while to merge those two elemental forces in this play, which has been smartly directed by Tracy Brigden. But once he does, causing fate and hope to intertwine in ways both disarming and devastating, it's hard to escape the emotional pull of this story about two NTSB coworkers, Miranda and Erik (Meg Gibson and Tim Guinee), who find each other in the wake of the fiery plane crash they're both investigating in the Midwest.

She's reserved, he's outgoing; she's sensitive, he's selfish; he drinks, she abstains (or at least pretends to). All Miranda and Erik seem to have in common is a predilection for keeping secrets about their pasts, and reasons for wanting to keep certain doors shut. During the course of their investigation, however, Erik's carpet-bombing of charm - or his version of it, at any rate - wins her over and the two end up spending the night together, representing the first real physical contact either has had in a long while.

If sex is one thing, intimacy is something else, and breaking through all the psychological barriers they've erected in the wake of the personal setbacks and tragedies they've experienced isn't so easy. Under the right circumstances, Erik may be willing to divulge some of the details of his divorce and Miranda might confess her inability to bear children. But the whys and wherefores don't bubble up so easily to the surface, though Ron (Ray Anthony Thomas), the husband of the woman on the ground who was killed in the plane crash, has a way of inspiring revelations. His love for his wife is a model of what can be, even when things aren't perfect all the time. (When are they at all?)

Meg Gibson and Ray Anthony Thomas
Photo by Monique Carboni.

Ron's scenes are limited, but it's in them that Reddin unlocks the play's most pungent poignancy, and chisels through the walls of artifice surrounding the Miranda-Erik pairing. There are times those two seem too energetically unbalanced to accept as wounded people only capable of repairing each other. The scenes with Ron, one in a hospital and one in the field where his wife died, center the play more securely within the realm of the believable. (Luke Hegel-Cantarella's breakaway-postcard set captures the play's proper fractured energy.)

It helps that Thomas gives a marvelously unaffected performance, and shows tremendous restraint in his portrayal by showing Ron as a man who is so distraught that he can't even force himself to fall apart completely. Guinee brings the attitude of a boozy stand-up comic to Erik, and seldom softens him into a real, aching man; Gibson has a fragile sense of self-togetherness that is much better judged, but never convincingly warms up as the script demands. Guinee and Gibson need to adopt a bit of the other's essential qualities to excel in these roles.

Interestingly, that's part of the play's point - you never really know what's missing inside you until someone else shows you it isn't there. Reddin could get there sooner than he does - there's a listless quality to the first few scenes that suggests little of the emotional range the play will eventually explore.

But in the final scenes, when both Erik and Miranda start to experience the lasting impact of their coming together, the play finds its voice in new and unexpectedly shattering ways that make you reconsider the emotional capacity lying within us all and to what degree we're really at fault for what transpires. Human Error isn't about human error - it's about mechanical failure, that one-in-a-million chance that something will go wrong that shouldn't - even though it can only happen if you start by believing that the other 999,999 times, things will go right.

Human Error
Through August 26
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street between 8th & 9th Avenues
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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