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This highly entertaining play will get you thinking

Clare Boothe Luce has described her play Margin for Error as a "satirical melodrama." In fact, the work is that and more: It's at least three separate plays -- political drama, murder mystery, comedy of manners -- each with its own style and tone. Sometimes the three butt against one another, sometimes they overlap. Rarely do they mesh seamlessly. But despite all its dramatic muddle, this highly entertaining Broadway hit from 1939 gets you thinking, unlike many contemporary plays.

First there's the political dissertation, prescient for its time. Luce was a smart woman who foresaw the Third Reich's catastrophic threat to the world while most of America prayed for isolation. Margin's Nazis are loathsome to behold: They're virulent, racist snobs, effete and chillingly detached from human compassion. Luce limns the master race as if wielding a stiletto. Blessedly, she doesn't soft-pedal their hatred of everything Jewish and democratic; there's not a whiff of political correctness here. Her absolute, unsparing vision of the future is chilling to witness almost 70 years later -- in 1939, it was an uncompromising slug to the head.

Luce's writing, especially in the impressionistic first act, is bold and astringent. She created one of the great stage villains, the German Consul General Karl Baumer. Deliciously played with an urbane, satanic gleam by Kent Johnson -- his head shaved, his posture ramrod, his manner displaying more than a hint of old-world sadistic sophistication -- Baumer is so complete, so alive, that the other characters come across as waxworks. When he's murdered at the end of Act I, the play takes a dangerous swerve into Agatha Christie's whodunit territory. We lose the ogre we love to hate, and the play runs out of steam.

Margin for Error: When German Consul General Karl Baumer (Kent Johnson, front) dies, his wife (Sara Gaston) and the newspaperman who's in love with her (Robert de los Reyes) are just two of the suspects.
Doug Killgore
Margin for Error: When German Consul General Karl Baumer (Kent Johnson, front) dies, his wife (Sara Gaston) and the newspaperman who's in love with her (Robert de los Reyes) are just two of the suspects.

Details

Margin for Error: Through December 18. $20-$35.
Matt & Ben: Through December 17. $23.
Margin for Error: Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, 713-524-6706.
Matt & Ben: Theater LaB Houston, 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516.

Both mystery and comedy are at the fore of Act II. The Jewish New Yorker policeman (Nicholas Collins) assigned to guard Baumer is charged with protecting him from untoward circumstances and, later, sorting out who's responsible for his death. But everyone in the room has plenty of motive for wanting the evil consul dead -- the bumbling German-American Bund leader (Robert Leeds), the consul's unloved wife (Sara Gaston), the newspaperman who's in love with her (Robert de los Reyes), the consul's aide-de-camp (Fritz Dickmann, in a marvelously layered portrait of a sympathetic Nazi), the wife's doctor (George Brock) and even the "common man" cop. The diamond-bright political comedy of manners becomes forced and mechanical as the murder is rehashed and replayed. But however farfetched, the solution is most satisfactory, making up for the routine second act.

Although director Steve Garfinkel can't avoid the boulders that Luce's inconsistent tone throws in his path (only Johnson and Dickmann convey a convincing, consistent style), the physical production is smooth and polished. Impressively designed by Boris Kaplun (sets), Amanda Bezemek (costumes) and John Smetak (lighting), the '30s art-deco moderne style is alive and well here, from the bust of Hitler, to the black-and-white-striped furniture, to the splashes of red in the cushions, to the tiny shaded lamps on the columns, to the swastikas on the doorknobs.

GETTING LUCKY

If you believe that those annoying Hollywood bosom buddies Matt Damon and Ben Affleck had celestial help writing Good Will Hunting (which inconceivably won the 1997 Academy Award for best original screenplay), you're not alone. In Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers's comic one-acter Matt & Ben, the screenplay literally falls from the sky into the guys' midst. It's the funniest moment in this extremely slight comedy.

These best friends -- Oscar and Felix clones -- crave fame and fortune, and here's their meal ticket, free and clear. Dare they pass off the script as their own work? The two are desperate to break into the movies: Intense Matt wants to meet Scorsese and Spielberg, and clueless Ben just wants to bed Daisy Fuentes. Is God playing a nasty prank? Panicked and frightened, the impressionable duo throw the script out of Ben's messy apartment (beautifully rendered by set designer Francisco Robledo), but it pounds on the door until they retrieve it. They fight over who'll play Will Hunting; they invoke a vapid Gwyneth Paltrow and a supercilious J.D. Salinger to opine on their dilemma; they relive their high school days; they insult each other. But their goofy friendship overcomes all.

Matt and Ben want the Hollywood dream so bad, we root for these losers. But we also know the inevitable outcome, and an hour of this uninspired satire is still way too long. The play's cause célèbre, not exactly a secret, is that Matt and Ben are played by women -- authors Kaling and Withers were the original cast. In Theater LaB's production, Stephanie Brown is Matt, and Lydia Meadows is Ben. This nifty idea could've complemented Damon and Affleck's sexual tension, which we know all too well from the incessant, overhyped publicity that has accompanied them since the beginning of their careers, but in this inconsequential sitcom, this authors' gimmick is just a gimmick.

The eventual trajectory of these two manufactured personalities' careers is, of course, ironic. The junk-food-munching, pudgy Matt ("Fat Damon," heckles Affleck) will become an intellectual action hero in those Bourne franchise movies, while handsome yet stupid Ben, who wants to be a star, will become a tabloid joke and second-tier starlet. Sometimes, stardom does fall, willy-nilly, out of the blue.

 
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