Politics makes for good theater. The extremes people are willing to go through to obtain public office and the power that often comes with it — even when it’s on a small scale — fuel Eric Coble’s new play “Margin of Error (or, The Unassailable Wisdom of the Mouse and the Scorpion).” It opened its world premiere production at Boise Contemporary Theater on Saturday, April 16. I attended the Friday, April 15, preview.
From its opening moments you get a sense that the play’s main character is a guy on a trajectory toward calamity. He’s moving too fast, juggling too much for his house of cards to hold up. He’s going down like a snowball headed downhill, building up power, then flying off a cliff.
High-powered political string-puller Harold Carver, played by the excellent Richard Klautsch, and his plucky intern Daphne, played by the equally wonderful Veronica Von Tobel, are trapped by a freak fog at the Boise Airport. From gate B16, Carver manipulates campaigns across the country via cellphone, while Daphne juggles different colored phones for each candidate.
Klautsch’s Carver swaggers and struts, and preaches his somewhat villainous campaign philosophy to his captive audience — Daphne, an idealistic ambitious conservative who wants to make a difference in the world.
Coble heightens their situation, beautifully with fog metaphors, bits about mice and scorpions, and fast-paced, snappy dialogue, like a brisk 1940s comedy. He deftly weaves a web with his story about backroom politics and corrupt individuals seeking power that eventually will trap Carver.
As Carver plans and plots victories for his clients, the lines get blurrier and blurrier. His lies and truths seem to exist in the same space. It’s not about who’s good or bad, right or wrong (or left) — it’s about winning. Daphne listens, soaks it all in and fires back with reasonable arguments that don’t seem to faze Carver. In the end, Daphne makes a surprising choice, and Carver is left to battle his past chickens that are now roosting.
BCT producing artistic director Matthew Cameron Clark’s crisp direction keeps the verbal action going. Will Ledbetter’s set turns the entire expanse of the stage into a replica of the Boise Airport. It even extends to the entryway with a clever touch as you enter the theater through a simulated passenger boarding bridge.
Peter John Still’s deftness of sound design helps keep the plot clear, with distinctive ringtones for each of Carver’s phones.
The themes within “Margin” are timeless. It’s tinged with Machiavellian overtones that played well with the audience, especially in the current political climate where power corrupts absolutely, and anything seems fair game.
If you’re looking for redemption, you’ll have to wait for the sequel. Carver will eventually go down, and he will do so slinging mud as hard as he can.
But this play does offer a bit of hope for the future, maybe in the hands of the more reasonable, less jaded next generation.
Klautsch carries the bulk of the verbal action and the drama of the play, with a nearly nonstop stream of phone conversations with his clients and debates with Daphne. In Carver, Klautsch, an actor of strong technique and powerful physical presence, finds a role to push him, and he is more than up to the challenge. He masterfully plays him over the top, just shy of too much. Then he pulls back, lets you see glimpses behind Carver’s mask of bravado, to a man so heartbroken by life and terrified of losing, he’ll do or say anything.
Von Tobel’s Daphne makes a great foil. Her Daphne is bright, funny and possesses a quiet strength and a rooted sense of moral balance that Carver deeply lacks.
Developing new plays is a challenge and like every new piece of theater, this one isn’t perfect. Some sections are overwritten, and the dynamics between high and low are few. But this is just the beginning for “Margin.” This play definitely needs to go forward and it will be honed ever more.
Coble, Clark and company developed it with the support of the River Prize, BCT’s new playwright’s fellowship, over the course of several months. It’s a step that takes BCT’s mission for new plays to the next level. Hopefully, we’ll have more of this level of new production in conjunction with this initiative.
‘Margin of Error’
8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, April 21 to 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, $16 all student tickets. 331-9224, ext. 205; BCTheater.org.