Michael Mauldin as Harold Carver and Mary-Francis Renee Miller as Daphne Anderson | Photo / Celeste Cosentino

Bad timing tames but doesn’t trump ‘Margin of Error’

By Bob Abelman

Turn on Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal,” “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah, or any of the other late-night TV comedy shows and listen to how studio audiences respond to the partisan puns and whoopee-cushion commentaries.

These days, we seem less likely to laugh out loud at the sorry state of our nation’s political affairs, preferring instead to shake our heads in quiet consternation.   

Our morale has been shaken by a disconcerting televised debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. 

Our minds are reeling from the onslaught of negative ads and acidic tweets, leaked emails of the Democratic National Committee, and the latest, a viral release of Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric during a videotaped deposition. 

So the timing of local playwright Eric Coble’s political comedy “Margin of Error” – a beautifully constructed one-act play receiving its regional premiere at Ensemble Theatre – couldn’t be worse. Too soon. And too close to home.

Coble’s play takes aim at the Machiavellian masterminds behind the scripted, spun, leaked and manipulated misinformation that drives contemporary American politics. It features the two-faced, morally corrupt and ethically bankrupt Harold Carver (Michael Mauldin), who is the most successful and sought-after Republican political strategist in the nation. 

For the duration of the play, the speed-talking wordsmith is stuck at Gate C19 of Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, while campaigns in Vermont, Oregon, Louisiana and Oklahoma, a disintegrating marriage, and an FBI probe into his dubious practices vie for his attention. Carver is aided by an eager young intern, Daphne Anderson (Mary-Francis Renee Miller).

Each concern is given its own color-coded cellphone, so we are able to eavesdrop on Carver’s behind-the-scenes message massaging (“People are as predictable as a pop song”) and witness his personal ideology (“You know who my God is? Victory”) and political philosophy (“A lie is only a lie until it becomes the truth”) at work. The damage they do appear in the newscasts blaring from the airport television monitors. 

Mauldin relishes every opportunity to play this man of no conscience as big and bold as possible and, under Eric Schmiedl’s direction, he masterfully rides the play’s comedic rhythms with just the right pace and with just the right tone.

Coble provides Carver with frequent outbursts – including a wonderfully heartfelt personal disclosure comprised largely of fiction and an impassioned battle cry to inspire his Louisiana candidate just before he speaks in front of the Baton Rouge Rotary Club – which Mauldin milks for all its worth. “This is your day, Auggie Diggs,” Mauldin screams into the yellow phone as sweat flies in every direction. “This is your Battle of Chancellorsville, your Normandy Beach, your Desert Storm, your Navy SEAL raid on Bin Laden – God has put you here, of all men on earth, you, to complete this mission.”

And yet laughter was limited during the show’s opening-night performance, in part due to the unfortunate timing of the play, but also due to the lack of comic timing and chemistry between Mauldin and Miller. 

Miller, as Daphne, is at her best when impressing Mauldin’s Carver with her intelligence, resourcefulness and like-minded passion for politics. But she has yet to find the core of her character when enacting the weaknesses Carver senses when he demands that she pull up her “big girl panties, grab a pitchfork and join the rebellion.” 

With nothing else to look at for 90 minutes, save the six seats that represent Gate C19, every action and emotion offered by the actors is under close audience scrutiny and needs to ring true to be effective.

“Margin of Error” runs through Oct. 23, during which two more presidential debates will take place. For the sake of this production, though not necessarily the state of the union, let’s hope the candidates give us something to laugh at. CV

On Stage

“Margin of Error”

WHERE: Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Hts.

WHEN: Through Oct. 23

TICKETS & INFO: $12-$35. Call 216-321-2930 or visit ensembletheatrecle.org

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3

Orginally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Oct. 4, 2016.

Lead image: Michael Mauldin as Harold Carver and Mary-Francis Renee Miller as Daphne Anderson. Photo | Celeste Cosentino