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Playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb sure throws a lot of stuff at the wall in “The Making Of A Great Moment,” his comedic two-hander now making its world premiere at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre.
There’s talk about the power of art, wry glances at the undercurrent of jealousy in communities of professional theater people and lots of self-affirming endorsements of creativity. There’s lots and lots of telling, as they say, and very little showing. While the interplay between actors Danny Scheie and Aysan Celik is very appealing, and Apollo Mark Weaver’s scenic design of backdrops and stationary bicycles is charming, what we’re left with is a well-intentioned piece that talks a lot about the transformative potential of theater but does little to prove its case.
Scheie and Celik play Terry and Mona, two itinerant actors who proudly compose the Victoria Canada Bicycle Theatre Company. They are touring an emphatically earnest educational show called “Great Moments In Human Achievement,” riding from venue to venue on bicycles and camping out in between performances.
The name of their show is at once fitting and ironic. Each performance truly seems like an accomplishment, given the effort that goes into it and, as Mona would have it, the vital social role played by theater. But there are few outward manifestations of greatness here. When the latest venue visited by the troupe is a nursing home with only one stage light, Terry questions the purpose of it all. (“Four hours and three minutes,” Mona tabulates later in a performance report. “Twenty-three audience members. Medical emergencies: one.”)
This is a great conceit, and bits in which the two gossip and complain about other players in the theater scene of Victoria (the capital of British Columbia) are truly droll. The fictional playwright-director of “Great Moments In Human Achievement,” it turns out, has written another duo play that’s been booked for a prestigious venue in Toronto. “Exquisite Maths” (tagline: “The only thing missing from the equation was each other”) is clearly a more commercial property, and both Terry and Mona reveal that they auditioned for it. He was told he was “too experienced” for the male role, and Mona dryly relays that she was “not blonde enough” to play a mathematician looking for love. (Merrimack adds a wonderful touch by providing a program for “Great Moments in Human Achievement,” complete with an ad for “Exquisite Maths,” to audience members.)
Bits of Terry and Mona’s play are strung throughout the show, and from the first, we admire the bike-riding actors’ pluck more than their performance. They are bad actors performing an interminable play. Composed of declamatory vignettes about moments of invention (“I’m the first scientist!”) and aided by basic costume pieces and awkward accents, the play-within-a-play seems better suited to a school assembly than a proper theater. But even in these unglamorous trenches, suggests Mona — and, by extension, playwright Nachtrieb -- theater possesses the power to truly inspire.
Director Sean Daniels, who developed the piece with the playwright and actors in a residency at New York University Abu Dhabi, pulls a very appealing performance from Scheie and Celik, balancing the unremitting earnestness projected by Mona with Terry’s tart cynicism. Their interplay is believable, and when things turn so rough that they criticize each other’s onstage performances, we feel the sting. They are each lovable in their own ways, and I'd like to see their adventures in a different play. But the extensive excerpts from their touring show are grating, and each character seems meant to represent a type, with little nuance. And the playwright's many bland exhortations to the audience to be creative and innovate are so on the nose it hurts.
In the end this feels less like a play seeking to make a point than a series of scenes with bullet-pointed themes. (Its affirming message might be best received by younger audiences, though there is indeed one swear word.) In one final dramatic gesture, Terry and Mona stop talking about the potential of theater to capture the imagination, and demonstrate it. With a simple bit of stagecraft, they travel much further than they did on the river of words that preceded it.
"The Making Of A Great Moment" plays at Merrimack Repertory Theatre through Jan. 29.
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