The action is set in the Nazi German consulate in New York City. Much to the Consul's displeasure, the building is being guarded by Jewish policemen, including Officer Moe Finkelstein. The Consul, whose name is Karl Baumer, has other problems. Anonymous admirers have been sending him gifts that smell of Bitter Almonds. A long line of distressed visitors, including Dr. Jennings, petition him to help liberate their friends and relatives from concentration camps. His Czech-American wife Sophie is having an affair with Thomas Denny, a newspaper columnist and unflappable anti-Nazi. His secretary, Baron Max von Alvenstor, seems uncommitted to the Nazi cause, unlike the Milwaukee-born German-American Bund leader, Otto B. Horst, whose posturing as the self-styled "American Fuehrer" has made himself a public shame, with Moe, for one, wanting to put him behind bars. An angry mob has gathered outside the Consulate, ready to throw things at Baumer. Last but not least, his Berlin superiors have given him a deadline to make up for the missing $250,000 that he gambled away on the stock market.
Determined to solve all his problems before he and his servants listen to Adolf Hitler's broadcast from Nuremberg at 5:00 (which is delayed as usual), the Consul plans to have Max serve as scapegoat for the money troubles and commit suicide after being exposed as a Jew, to make a martyr of Horst by framing Moe for his murder, to con Dr. Jennings into providing him with a blank check, and to blackmail Denny into giving him good press with threats against Sophie. But Moe winds up conducting a homicide investigation when he finds the Consul dead as Hitler's awful speech is still going on.
A film version of Margin for Error was released by 20th Century Fox in 1943. The film featured Joan Bennett as Sophie and Milton Berle as Moe Finkelstein, with Otto Preminger (who also directed) reprising his stage role as the Consul.
This play contains examples of:
- Citizenship Marriage: Denny promises to marry Sophie so she won't be extradited to Germany for murdering her husband.
- Crime Reconstruction: Moe has Dr. Jennings, Denny, Max, Sophie and Horst go back to the positions they were in at the time of the Consul's death and a few minutes before, to test out different theories of how the Consul was killed. Moe himself stands in for the Consul.
- Divide and Conquer: Otto Horst claims that this is his best propaganda strategy for Nazism in America:Horst: No, Baron, my best bet is to create conflict among creeds and colors. Then step in, when they're exhausted, and take the whole country over—bang! Next week I attack the Catholics, Masons, Negroes, and Café Society.
Max: Perhaps you'd better just purge Elsa Maxwell, and leave the rest to Hitler.
- Everyone Is a Suspect: Even before Consul Karl Baumer is killed, Denny is keeping a running count of how many of the people in his office want him dead. Denny, Sophie, Max, Otto and Dr. Jennings all have personal motives for his murder; though Moe wasn't in the room at the time, he considers being Jewish enough for some people to suspect him for killing the Consul.
- Greater-Scope Villain: Adolf Hitler is obviously the power behind the German Consul, but his presence in the play is limited to a bronze bust and an obnoxious radio speech.
- Music to Invade Poland To: The Consul buys a record of Richard Wagner's "Liebestod," but puts on the wrong record first:Max: I—I was just listening to the music—
Consul: Yes, very soothing. Hitler and I also have Wagner in common.
Max: That's not Wagner. That's Mendelssohn. Played by Heifetz.
- Nazi Nobleman: Baron Max von Alvenstor is blond-haired, blue-eyed, and helped beat a Jew to death in Berlin on the night of November 7th, 1938. Though a loyal German, he speaks perfect Oxford English, and his Nazi sympathies are doubtful, especially after it's revealed that his grandmother was Jewish.
- Who Murdered the Asshole?: As mentioned above in Everyone Is a Suspect, the majority of the people in his office have motives for wanting him dead.