The Roustabouts Theatre Company is simultaneously new and old. Co-founders Phil Johnson and Ruff Yeager have appeared regularly on San Diego stages for some time, and they have collaborated on shows, most recently on She-Rantulas from Outer Space in 3D!, which played at Diversionary twice and had a run at the New York Fringe Festival. Their third collaborator on the current venture is playwright Will Cooper, who splits his time between San Diego and Chicago and whose Jade Heart was staged by Moxie Theatre.
Mr. Cooper’s new play, Margin of Error leads off as a world premiere for the company, at the Lyceum Space through May 7. It’s an interesting work about competition for prestige in big-time academic physics, and parts of the plot could have been taken from headlines about sexual harassment and assault at universities. If it’s not completely successful it’s an entirely engaging evening of theatre.
Anton Myrvold (Mr. Yeager) is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Chicago. He is the primary author of a controversial theory explaining “dark matter” in a manner that, if true, would turn major portions of accepted theory on its ear. He’s even being considered seriously for the Nobel Prize in physics, according to a letter in his mail as the play begins.
Professor Myrvold is married to Sunita (Roxane Carasco), an Indian peace activist who specializes in conflict resolution. Myrvold claims to be very proud of his wife’s accomplishments, but he also treats her in a very controlling manner.
The occasion where the story unfolds is a dinner party and the Myrvolds are giving for two of the professor’s newly-minted doctoral students, Gray Foxberry (Joel Miller) and Britt Carlsson (Kate Rose Reynolds). The two have been dating and are thinking about marriage, but both need post-doctoral positions and are competing for the same fellowship, which is both prestigious and controlled by Myrvold.
Given how controlling the professor is of his own wife, it’s no surprise that he’s demanded sexual favors from Carlsson in exchange for awarding the fellowship to her.
Mr. Cooper mines these relationships and finds that controlling and status-seeking is not a one-way street. What’s supposedly appalling about Professor Myrvold’s behavior is that he has been an advocate for strict ethical behavior in scientific research.
The play’s two acts present all three academics acting desperately, as if their very lives depended on the outcome of a power game in which they are engaged. In truth, Myrvold holds the most power and acts in the most egregious manner, but his two former graduate students also go over the top to get what they want. It’s a game unbefitting all of them, and no one comes away from it unscarred.
Of course, playwright Edward Albee created a similar dynamic in his masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but his stakes were, in their way, far higher than those in Margin of Error. And, to some degree, that’s a problem for consideration as the script evolves from this point. In particular, Myrvold’s relationship with Foxberry seems unrealistic, resulting in quite a few wince-producing moments during their interactions (I do think it’s the play’s problem and that both Mr. Yeager and Mr. Miller did their best with what they had been given).
Some smoothing could help with the women characters as well, though director Rosina Reynolds has worked her usual magic with the actors to produce interactions that are as believable as the script will allow. Ms. Carrasco, in particular, is charged with not only moderating the conflict but with truth-telling, and she handles both roles with particular grace. Ms. Reynolds, Mr. Miller, and Mr. Yeager’s performances are true to their characters, but none of those characters come off particularly well.
For its initial outing the company has gone first cabin with its creative team. Sean Fanning has produced an elegant-looking, though functional, scenic design that is well lit by Curtis Mueller. Elisa Benzoni designed the eye-catching costumes, Bonnie Durben supplied an array of props, and Melanie Chen’s sound design was as inconspicuous as needed.
Even if Margin of Error could still use some work, the production will raise lots of questions worth considering and may provoke some interesting post-performance discussions. And, doing so counts as an auspicious debut in my book.