Thanks largely to a sensitive perf from Meg Gibson as a bottled-up woman coaxed back to emotional life by two very different men, Keith Reddin’s wisp of a play, “Human Error,” comes across as more substantial than it is. At its core a character study of two damaged people who have taken refuge from their unhappy lives by hiding in emotionally deadening jobs, this “Frankie & Johnny” wannabe gets the royal treatment from cast and creative crew assembled by the Atlantic, which developed the property in its Stage 2 workshop.
Classy work in a production helmed by Tracy Brigden (a.d. of City Theater in Pittsburgh) beefs up this wistful romantic yarn considerably. But just watch it fall apart and float away in less sure hands.
The abstract set of painted flats designed by Luke Hegel-Cantarella and lighted with a poetic touch by Jeff Croiter creates a horizontal sightline that lyrically evokes the flat Midwestern farm country where the drama is set. Depending on Eric Shim’s musical mood, we are standing in a peaceful field where breeding horses can be taken out for exercise, where a plant worker and his wife can take a stroll at the end of the day — or where a Boeing 737 can come crashing down from the sky, killing 117 people on the spot.
Miranda (Gibson) and Erik (Tim Guinee) are seasoned — indeed, hardened — investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board, who are pacing out the crash scene and making notes for their report. In a macabre variant of meeting cute, Erik makes a pass at his frosty colleague by asking whether the devastation doesn’t turn her on. “All this death …. the stench of it,” doesn’t it just make her horny as hell?
That introduction to Erik is Reddin’s first misstep. While sexual arousal in the midst of utter carnage is hardly big news, Erik not only opens his courtship of Miranda with this violent assault on her well-guarded sensibility, he keeps it up relentlessly. Stone deaf to body language, he doesn’t even let up on the caveman approach after Miranda tumbles for his brutish line.
Now, kinky sexual come-ons are okay, as far as they go. At some point, however, it really does become imperative for such a creepy guy to show some charm. But not in Reddin’s playbook, evidently, and not in Guinee’s rather desperate attempt to detach himself from the ugly thrust of the crude dialogue.
Once he has succeeded in getting Miranda into the sack, Erik does, in fact, reveal a less revolting side to his personality — but not to Miranda, who is safely out of earshot in the shower. Those of us in listening range learn that this wiseguy is as lonely as the next guy, and actually feels a bit of guilt for leaving his wife and abandoning his daughter. Guinee looks appropriately contrite and gets the most he can out of the monologue. But as confessions go, this one doesn’t go very deep.
By Reddin’s spare-is-fair rules of playwriting, Miranda is scarcely more fleshed out. But that doesn’t stop Gibson from turning herself inside out to find the woman’s pulse. Applying bravura technique, she builds her performance through vocal shading and physical nuance, delicately charting the emotional flowering — and cruel deflowering — of a woman for whom she clearly feels a great deal of sympathy. Gibson even relates to her costumes on a visceral level, drawing Miranda’s unattractive outfits around her like a protective shell.
In this pro fashion, thesp fills in Reddin’s sketchy study of a deeply wounded middle-aged woman struggling to find a good excuse for living. But however skillfully Gibson brings about the transformation, poor Miranda — and the play itself — could use a little more dramatic help than she gets from Erik.
Ray Anthony Thomas steps in with the requisite feeling as Ron, a retired factory worker who lost his beloved wife when the plane came down in the field where they were taking an evening stroll — hand in hand, you’d bet your boots. In his sympathetic portrayal, Ron wrings a promise from Miranda that she will return with her finished report on the accident and explain exactly how he came to be widowed.
Indeed, both actors come close to beating blood out of a stone in their two scenes together. But Reddin’s elliptical style — part poetry, part sign language — really only works in the final scene, when Ron and Miranda, both caught up in their separate grief, haltingly reach out to comfort one another. With a minimum of words, to be sure, but these spare words are extremely well chosen — especially with the lighting designer working the lightboard like a maniac to show us that the grass is still green and the sky is still blue on the other side of this scorched and desiccated spot.