There are so many great moments in The Making of a Great Moment, the new play from the scintillating San Francisco playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, that it’s hard to decide if the best ones are from the comic side or the more dramatic one.
Of course the comedy moments have that pleasurable sting, like the insult, “I think her halitosis gave me pink eye” is one that lingers. And so is the sage advice: “Don’t give your own poop to the chimpanzee.” I may never look at a nursing home the same way now that I’ve heard them described as “the hole before the hole.”
Certainly Nachtrieb, one of the sharpest, funniest playwrights working in this or any city, knows his way around a great line, and Great Moment, a Z Space production at Z Below, packs its 90 minutes with memorable lines and some big laughs. But this seeming trifle of a comedy about two Canadian actors touring a ridiculous four-hour show on their bicycles is ultimately going for something much bigger. The epic drama that Mona (Aysan Celik) and Terry (Danny Scheie) are peddling while pedaling is called Great Moments in Human Achievement, and that says it all. Using daffy paper cutouts (by Jessica Ford) to transform quickly into characters from every epoch of human existence, they illuminate such moments as the invention of clothing and language to the all-important creation of the bicycle. The funniest excerpt we see, by far, is the invention of kissing.
But as silly as the play-within-the-play can be, its absurdity is masking a deep yearning to create something that matters to the world, to the actors and to the audience members (meager as they may be). Mona is especially insistent on honoring the play and its quest to honor humanity and inspire humans toward greatness in their own lives. Terry, on the other hand, is over it. For him, this is a job – a difficult one that, he admits, causes him to hemorrhage chunks of his dignity.
It’s easy to laugh at actors who are serious about acting because they can seem pretentious and narcissistic, but
Great Moment wants to have it all ways: laugh at the actors, laugh with the actors and develop an emotional connection with two humans who happen to be actors. Nachtrieb and director Sean Daniels mostly succeed in these tonal shifts thanks largely to the wonder of Celik and Scheie, who can be cartoons and flesh-and-blood within the same scene. Scheie, with his acid tongue, and Celik with her astonishingly expressive face and eyes, make for a great duo and easily bridge the transitions from tetchy, cynical comedy to the drama of frustrations aching for transcendence.
Apollo Mark Weaver creates a meta-theatrical set so that the play and the play-within-the-play both live in a formal theatrical space with painted backdrops. There’s a nifty mechanism that allows Terry and Mona to climb on their bicycles and pedal while the backdrop rolls behind them (kind of like an old cartoon), and when they make camp by the side of the road, we get the illusion of them in their sleeping bags though they’re actually standing up against another backdrop.
It’s a slick production, though it’s always about Mona and Terry and whether they can – or should – go on. One of the sharpest, funniest moments is Mona spending a sleepless night wondering if the ad lib she created in that night’s show when the electricity went out (“We are all in the dark.”) should become a permanent part of the show, even without the playwright’s permission. Mona’s personality splits in two, each arguing with the other – like a Canadian Gollum in the New Hampshire woods. Mona knows she’s onto something, a real moment of connection with people, but she’s a good theater person and doesn’t want to break the rules.
Terry implores her just to add it already, and while they’re at it, there are a million other things they should fix, but that’s the difference between them. He’s a journeyman who feels life and success has passed him by, and she is still holding out hope that she can make some sort of difference, that theater/art can make a difference. Like Terry, we might not quite believe that, but we really, really want to. Terry, after all, isn’t so far gone that he doesn’t hum Julie Andrews songs to himself (“Stay Awake,” “I Have Confidence”) while he’s doing other things.
There’s a lot to say about The Making of a Great Moment, a broad, entertaining comedy that aims to examine the human condition and figure out what purpose our lives can serve. But enough with the nice comments. As Terry says, “Arbitrary positivity is a sign of mental illness.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s The Making of a Great Moment continues through Aug. 26 at Z Below, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$50. Call 415-626-0453 or visit www.zspace.org.