Politics drive Boise Contemporary Theater’s ‘Margin of Error’

Veronica Von Tobel and Richard Klautsch rehearse for Boise Contemporary Theater’s world premiere of Eric Coble’s “Margin of Error,” a fast-paced political comedy/drama that will open Saturday, April 16.
Veronica Von Tobel and Richard Klautsch rehearse for Boise Contemporary Theater’s world premiere of Eric Coble’s “Margin of Error,” a fast-paced political comedy/drama that will open Saturday, April 16.

One bitter and cynical campaign manager, one bright-eyed and idealistic intern, four cellphones on a foggy night in Boise: How much trouble could there be?

Well, for political strategist Harold Carver (Richard Klautsch), the answer is a whole bunch. Stranded in Idaho by a freak blanket of fog that closes the Boise Airport, Carver must juggle four campaigns — from a misguided school board election to a messy Senate battle — with the help of an intern, Daphne (Veronica Von Tobel), while trapped at Gate B16.

Who’s right, who’s left? It doesn’t matter. It’s about who wins, says playwright Eric Coble.

“The tactics of winning those are timeless,” Coble says. “It’s about controlling the narrative.”

That’s a major thread in Coble’s play “Margin of Error (or, The Unassailable Wisdom of the Mouse and the Scorpion)” that opens at Boise Contemporary Theater this weekend.

“This is about a guy who embraces the bare-knuckle alley fight part of it (politics). He’s not running for office so he doesn’t have to be careful of what he says. His job is to build up and destroy — ‘to smear with honey or dog crap’ — as he says.”

Coble wrote his play through BCT’s River Prize, a new play initiative that producing artistic director Matthew Cameron Clark launched this season. The prize will support one new play from idea to performance each season, and help fulfill BCT’s mission to create new works for the American stage.

It sounds like a lofty goal, but these two have a track record. This is Coble’s third world premiere at BCT and his first commission from Clark. Coble’s “The Velocity of Autumn” made its world premiere at BCT in 2011. It opened on Broadway in 2014, starring the legendary Estelle Parsons, who received a Tony nomination for the role.

“When we started this idea of the River Prize, I thought of Eric,” says Clark, who is directing the play. “He had this idea he’s been working on, and we sort of merged midstream. I was thrilled by the timing. The tactics in the story are inspired by real events in American politics, and they defy belief. Now, with the current election, those goal posts have moved even further and the play resonates in a different way than I anticipated.”

Klautsch carries the largest part of the verbal action, with a nearly nonstop stream of phone conversations with his clients and debates with Daphne. Carver wields different-colored cellphones for each campaign. Von Trobel’s intern comes up with solutions while dealing with her personal issues, and fighting for her ideals.

They’re working for the blue team, but as the play develops, ideologies blur, purposes collide and politics get dirty.

“People who have no conscience are intriguing, not in real life, but on stage they’re compelling,” Coble says. “The pleasure of the play is being in the company of two smart people for an hour and a half, not that you have to agree with what they say.”

Coble’s observations of politics inspired this play. He brought his idea to Clark in September, who loved it. He’s been working from his home in Cleveland and with the support of the prize, traveled to Boise to collaborate with BCT’s theater artists and actors in several workshops and roundtables. Sitting in a room full of actors and designers is where the play really comes to life.

“I’m trained as an actor, and as I’m writing, I’m reading in my head,” he says. “But hearing a better actor speaking the words ... it suddenly becomes clear, what you need and what you don’t. Then you add in all technical stuff, it tells the story even further.”

Now about the title: “The Unassailable Wisdom of the Mouse and the Scorpion” sounds a bit over the top, but it offers insight to the character’s motivation, Coble says.

“There is such a thing as a grasshopper mouse, native to my home of the Southwest, which is immune to scorpion stings, and in fact is made numb and able to keep attacking because of the scorpion stings,” Coble says. “I wanted to find an example in the natural world of using an opponent’s strength against them, which is what Harold does so brilliantly.”

‘Margin of Error’

8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, April 15-May 7; and 2 p.m. Saturdays, April 23, 30 and May 7, 854 Fulton St. $34 Fridays-Saturdays, $20 matinees and Wednesdays, $26 Thursdays, $18 preview (Friday, April 15), $16 all student tickets. 331-9224, ext. 205;