Comedy and more fill Great Moment at Z Below

Great Moment 2
Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s The Making of a Great Moment stars Danny Scheie and Aysan Celik and makes its world premiere under the direction of Sean Daniels at Z Below. Photos by Meghan Moore

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 1
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.”

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

This Lion is king at ACT

The Lion Review 3
Benjamin Scheuer’s autobiographical solo musical, The Lion, has been a hit around the world and makes its San Francisco debut at ACT’s Strand Theater through May 1. Photos by Matthew Murphy

If Benjamin Scheuer were simply a musical act, I’d happily go see him in concert and buy his albums. his voice can go from sweet to gravelly, aggressive to tender, rollicking to romantic even within the space of a single song, and the same can be said for his guitar playing. He puts himself out there in his music, and in addition to being aurally pleasing, his music is also deeply satisfying.

But Scheuer is more than a concert act. He’s also a playwright and actor. So his version of a concert is the one-man autobiographical musical The Lion now at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater. His combination of monologue and songs is irresistibly wonderful, and my only complaint about the show is that, at 70 minutes, it’s too short. At the end I felt greedy and wanted more, more, more. I’ll just have to wait for his new album, Songs from The Lion, to be released June 3.

I reviewed the production for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s an excerpt:

With a vocal range that starts with James Taylor, detours into Dave Matthews and occasionally diverges into Marcus Mumford (and perhaps some of the Sons), Scheuer performs Tin Pan Alley, blues, folk and rock convincingly.
Even more, his writing is as masterful as his singing and playing. Two songs late in the show, one in which he imagines his mother receiving a call from her late husband and another in which Scheuer writes a postcard to the dad he never got to make up with, deal with the push and pull of grief and healing in ways that simple dialogue could not.
“The Lion” comes across as an effortless evening of song and story — that’s its polished surface. But in reality, it’s a rare and nearly perfect piece of solo autobiographical musical theater — that’s its triumph.

The Lion Review 1

Read the full review here.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Benjamin Scheuer for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

[bonus video]
Here’s the official music video for Scheuer’s “Weather the Storm,” a song from The Lion.

Benjamin Scheuer’s The Lion continues through May 1 at ACT’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. . Tickets are $25-$55. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Review: “Big Death & Little Death”

(opened Feb. 10, 2007)

Crowded Fire blazes forth with bleak, funny Death
three stars Apocalypse soon

When the first scene of a play involves dead puppies, you can be sure you’re not headed into the usual dramatic territory.

Such is the case with Crowded Fire Theater Company’s Big Death & Little Death, a 2005 play by Mickey Birnbaum that foretells the end of the world as we know it — and Birnbaum feels fine.

Sort of Donnie Darko mashed up with “DeGrassi High” with a little American Beauty cynicism thrown in for good measure, this dark comedy, which opened Saturday at San Francisco’s Traveling Jewish Theatre, is angry about three things: U.S. war-making in the Middle East, American suburbia and everything else.

Imagine a heavy-metal sitcom full of doom, gloom and laughs, and you’ll get a sense of Big Death, the story of high schooler Gary (the superb Carter Chastain, an actual high school student at Los Lomas High School in Walnut Creek) and his wretched home life.

His father (Lawrence Radecker) has just returned from the first Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, and he’s damaged and angry, though he’s able to tell his kids he loves them nonstop.

Something terrible happened to Gary’s adulterous mom (Michele Leavy) during the family’s road trip from hell (at one point the car was flying — don’t ask), leaving him and his sister (Mandy Goldstone) to pretty much fend for themselves.

Gary takes refuge in heavy metal bands — his favorites include Septic Wound and My Autopsy — and his earphones are never further from his ears than around his neck. Sister Kristi finds her escape in a photo album compiled by her father of gruesome fatal car accidents.

At school, Gary doesn’t get a whole lot of support from his nerdy friend Harley (Ben Freeman), who turns into a neurotic mess whenever Kristi’s around. And the school’s career counselor (Tonya Glanz) doesn’t provide much counseling, but she does have sex with Gary and enjoy his drugs — including a bag of mysterious red pills called “bub.”

Sean Daniels, the former associate artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater, guides the chaos of Birnbaum’s play through 2 1/2 off-beat hours that skirt the usual sitcom rhythms and find deeper, more troubling places, especially in Act 2.

The play devolves into surreality — cue Mick Mize as the giant pit bull puppy and Michael Barr as the dead uncle calling from the afterlife — as Chloe Short’s suburban kitchen set falls apart to reveal a night full of stars.

Performances are pumped-up and funny throughout, with stellar work coming from the grounded Chastain, whose believable Gary is as humorous as he is heartbreaking. Goldstone is also a believable teen, though her character remains disappointingly under-developed.

With the universe imploding around them, the teenagers finally calm down, and Big Death & Little Death, as its fatalistic title implies, finishes the equation it sets up in Act 1: human + time = dust.

Bleak but undeniable — and somehow strangely entertaining.

For information about Crowded Fire and Big Death & Little Death visit