Do you have the same sense of humor as Peter Sinn Nachtrieb? On the opening night of his new play The Making of a Great Moment, the playwright posed that question to the audience. What he really wanted to know was would we laugh at his jokes? The answer, if not universally so, came in the form of frequent chortles, snorts and guffaws. Anyone who had attended his 2016 immersive theater piece A House Tour knew what they were in for, and had, perhaps, longed for the day when Danny Scheie would once again expel Nachtrieb’s words with his characteristic acidulous way of address.
At the conclusion of Moment, it’s not clear if Scheie had become the playwright’s muse or vice versa. The script hews so closely to the actor’s strengths it’s not possible to imagine anyone else reciting the lines. Obviously, there’s been a Vulcan mind meld between the two artists. A House Tour was a verbally demanding one-man show that Scheie marched through with a lascivious, suggestive edge. That same skill of portraying salaciousness is present in his portrayal of Terry Dean, a Canadian repertory actor attempting to finish out a run in his 207th production.
But this time, his character shares the stage, albeit reluctantly, with Mona Barnes (Aysan Celik). In Celik, Scheie gets to parry his rapier wit with a chameleonic and charming scene partner. Terry wouldn’t admit it, but he’s evenly matched in this two-hour long battle of imp versus marvelous imp. Terry and Mona hail from The Victoria Canada Bicycle Theatre Company (V.C.B.T.C.). We first meet them “backstage” — such as it is — in what is probably a nursing home. Terry is mortified to discover there is only one stage light, and it doesn’t even have the power to dim.
These Beckettian clowns are on tour peddling their four-hour performance of Great Moments in Human Achievement in any backwater that will have them. The V.C.B.T.C. — Terry and Mona travel cross country on bikes — are beholden to Polly Kensington, the writer-director of the play, and the company founder who wires their salaries to them while they’re on the road, when she remembers to. They don’t earn enough to stay in motels, so they camp out under the stars in between all day cycling journeys on deserted country roads.
The Making of a Great Moment follows Terry and Mona as they seek some kind of inspiration to keep their creative spirits in motion. They aren’t exactly Will and Grace, but describing them as their distant thespian cousins wouldn’t be too off the mark. Their interactions consist of melodramatic meltdowns and conflagrations, ego-soothing and ego-stroking. But Nachtrieb departs from a traditional situation comedy or theatrical narrative by including excisions from Great Moments in Human Achievement, the play-within-a-play.
Terry and Mona don papier-mâché masks and render these achievements out in quick recitations, abbreviated summaries that cheekily detail the advancement of our species. Nachtrieb zeroes in on off-kilter moments. Or, rather, he portrays them as such, like Heimlich discovering his maneuver or the first metallurgist recounting an accidental meltdown. The most expansive monologue of the bunch though stays on theme: the inventor of the bicycle, a German by the name of Baron Karl von Drais. Scheie unleashed his accent with a Teutonic furor that had a woman nearby bent over from laughing. It was the making of an unparalleled Scheie Nachtrieb moment.
The Making of a Great Moment, through Aug. 26, at Z Space, 450 Florida St, 415-626-0453 or zspace.org