The French philosopher Henri Bergson describes comedy as “something mechanical in something living” and that kind of sums up what it means to live if you ask me. We all have a Timex watch in our souls and we’re slaves to its crude mechanics.
I don’t know if Z Space playwright-in residence Peter Sinn Nachtrieb has read Bergson. But at his best, Nachtrieb is an apostle of the French theorist, a playwright who loves to windup his toy characters and let them wreak havoc.
In last year’s sterling House, he found the perfect comic mechanism in the tour guide of a historic property. Weston Ludlow Londonderry can’t help himself; he is going to guide us to the truth of the house no matter how dirty and ugly. But in his new show, The Making of a Great Moment, Nachtrieb's mechanism isn't quite the well-oiled machine it ought to be.
The dramatist trains his eye on a couple of actors: the cynical Terry Dean played by the always brilliant Danny Sheie, and the idealistic Mona Barnes in a sharp performance by Aysan Celik.
The pair are bicycling from theater to theater to perform a four-hour play titled Great Moments in Human Achievement, which Barnes hopes will spur their sparse audiences to their own great moments.
The joy of watching the actors ride actual bikes as the scenery moves behind them is the kind of hammy artifice that makes going to the theater a real kick. As Samuel Beckett said to Jean Paul Sartre in an unrecorded and unsubstantiated conversation, "You get your jollies where you can."
Dramatists love to make fun of actors and the theater (Noises Off, Waiting for Guffman). So it's enjoyable to watch the two thesps perform actorly exercises to get centered and stop sniping at each other.
Gazing meaningfully into each other's eyes, they begin with kind, affirming phrases such as “I see commitment” and “I see solutions.” These perfunctory bits of politeness quickly escalate to passive-aggressive assaults that come way too close to the truth: "You look like a Popsicle. An oozing, salty Popsicle in the blazing sun at a state fair coating the hand of a bratty little girl" says Barnes in a spot-on assessment of Dean's state of mind and fading good looks. “I see death. I see surrender. Like you’ve surrendered to the forces of decay.”
There's much joy to be had in the never ending parade of human misery, and Great Moments has some sharp bits that build a kind of loopy momentum. Yet the problem is that they are just bits.
Whereas the whole of Nachtrieb’s House felt like an AI program replicating itself in strange and unsettling ways, Great Moments has a mushy humanism that feels stale. It’s as if the playwright is trying to will himself to have a heart when what he really wants to do is destroy his robots.
That tension isn’t only philosophically unwieldy, but it also strains Nachtrieb’s normally airtight sense of structure. Great Moments is both a journey play and a play-within-a-play play, and each of these things trips over the other.
As Barnes and Dean bike to their next gig, we get extended fantasies of their past performances, what they’d like to perform, and what they will be performing that night. It's a lot to take in and the play often feels ragged around the edges as a result.
We're constantly having to think with Great Moments rather than react to the work. Even the talented cast starts to wear a bit, as Celik and Scheie struggle to balance all the competing bits and registers of the action. We end up with neither fully fleshed-out characters nor finely-tuned machines. And because of that, we lose the manic energy that might result when both converge in Bergson's lovely little equation of comedy.
'The Making of a Great Moment' runs through Sunday Aug. 26 at Z Below in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.