IF A STRING QUARTET IS an unusual context for a play, how about a fling between two needy members of the National Transportation Safety Board?
Keith Reddin’s new play Human Error at the Atlantic Theater Company’s new Stage 2 has a few K. 590 moments, too. Miranda and Erik are investigating a plane disaster. “Looks like separation of the engine, a section of the wing and from what I can tell starboard slats stayed extended,” Miranda observes glumly.
“I’m told we can look at the recovered hydraulics first thing in the morning,” says Erik.
But Erik has other things in mind. “Did you know that an intense fear of death also causes a marked increase in testosterone?” he asks Miranda, who prefers to quote Robert Browning (“… Death stepped tacitly and took them where they never see the sun”). Be that as it may, her ill-advised affair with Erik begins after coy cocktails in the hotel bar.
The play is only 80 minutes long, yet the experienced playwright Mr. Reddin leaves practically nothing unsaid. Both protagonists reveal their damaged souls in talky, facile ways. Unhappy, crass, opportunistic Eric is divorced and all but estranged from his daughter; lonely, intelligent, vulnerable Miranda was jilted by her longtime lover and is only now recovering from a nervous breakdown. Will she find true happiness at last with Erik, or is she just a sucker?
Human Error is meant to be a serious play about the precariousness of fate and loss, but in fact it’s an unsurprising mini-soap opera dressed up as a metaphor. Is routine life as arbitrary as an error that causes an airline disaster? Mr. Reddin seems to think so. For good measure, he gives us an elderly survivor of the crash, Ron, who’s mourning the death of his beloved wife. We also learn that feckless Erik survived a near-fatal car crash with little more than a small scar, while his best friend in the passenger seat was crippled (but learned to walk again).
Mr. Reddin is gilding his wilting lily. When Erik suddenly leaves Miranda in the lurch because he’s called away on an emergency (his daughter has been hospitalized with a seizure and might die), the outcome is less a matter of random fate than a convenient resolution to a romantic mismatch.
For all that, Human Error is expertly directed by Tracy Brigden and performed by three first-rate actors. The particularly gifted Meg Gibson, as Miranda, deserves some kind of medal for her masterful delivery of these lines: “The hydraulic lines of the drive actuator for the left wing’s outboard leading edge slat were severed by the separation of the pylon and the left wing’s outboard slats retracted during climb out. The retraction of the slats caused an asymmetric stall and loss of control of the aircraft.”
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