Thespians on wheels

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday July 18, 2017
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In what he calls his wheelhouse, you'll find apocalypse and destruction �" but playfully so. "I like to explore fundamental human questions in bizarre and entertaining ways that give us a chance to laugh, and then maybe stir debate," said Peter Sinn Nachtrieb. But in his newest play, the San Francisco playwright has chosen to step out of his wheelhouse for a little fresh air.

With "The Making of a Great Moment," Nachtrieb decided to "write about something that had brightness outside of this terrible state of affairs that seems to consume us these days." The comedy about two bickering actors bicycling across the continent to threadbare venues with their epic play about human achievement begins performances July 26 at Z Space, where Nachtrieb is the Mellon Foundation's playwright in residence.

In his play "The Totalitarians," seen in numerous cities since its debut in 2004, he conjured a pandering populist politician of dubious ethics that, at the time, reminded no one of the man who would become president. In 2008, his doomsday comedy "boom" imagined how a Craigslist ad could help preserve remnants of humanity after an apocalypse. And for the past five years, he's been working on a musical about a town sinking from over-fracking the cosmetic essential oils beneath it.

And then came Trump, and while Nachtrieb's past works have gained new relevancy, he has a play percolating tentatively titled "A One-Room Sex Comedy About Empathy" that definitely flows from �" and against �" current affairs. "All I know so far is it's about an overbooked hotel room, and it will have something to do with empathy and how difficult that is to achieve especially now, to be able to put yourself in someone else's shoes," he said. "The energy I get from social media is so overwhelmingly negative and inescapable, it's exhausting, and it's triggering the next piece."

Danny Scheie and Aysan Celik play often-bickering actors who are touring an epic play via bicycles in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's "The Making of a Great Moment." Photo: Meghan Moore

"The Making of a Great Moment," his current play, "also feels outside of that stuff that we've talking about right now," the playwright said. "It was about writing something to escape for a little bit our terrible state of affairs. I wanted this play to live in a world not as corrupt and dark as the real world. Optimism and pessimism are always something I'm in battle with, and it always comes out in the work."

In the production, Danny Scheie plays world-weary Terry, an actor with a string of failed gay relationships, and Aysan Celik is the starry-eyed Mona, roles that were created specifically for these performers by Nachtrieb and director Sean Daniels. These four had originally worked together in 2011 at Louisville's Humana Festival in Nachtrieb's comedy "Bob: A Life in Five Acts," and were looking for a chance to come creatively together again. It started happening in, of all places, Abu Dhabi.

Born in California and of Turkish descent, Celik had landed a job teaching at New York University's new campus in Abu Dhabi. As a professor, she had resources for professional development and was able to bring Scheie, Daniels, and Nachtrieb to Abu Dhabi to explore a new project they could do together.

They did head out to the sand dunes to ride a camel, but in the city, life was not particularly exotic. "Giant malls and theme parks," Nachtrieb said, but tight reins on alcohol consumption kept their own imbibing to a night at the Holiday Inn where a Filipino karaoke cover band was on the bill. On the NYU campus, they did set up a performance of "House Tour," Nachtrieb's previous play at Z Space that starred Scheie as the eccentric, probably gay docent at an historic house.

"We were very nervous about that because we were breaking many laws," Nachtrieb said. "It's a very explicit play with a lot of gay themes and sexual content, and they have very strict morality laws. But on the NYU campus, they have completely protected speech."

The team regrouped at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Massachusetts where Daniels is artistic director, and the debut production of "The Making of a Great Moment" opened earlier this year. "The reviews were mixed," Nachtrieb acknowledged, "and I'm trying to figure that out. There were people in the audience who really loved it, and some who were a little mystified by it. One of my jobs has been trying to make the play a little easier to enter, but without sacrificing the depth at the same time."

Perhaps part of the confusion came from the fact that "The Making of a Great Moment" is about putting on a show titled "Great Moments in Human Achievement." Scenes from the ups and downs of the duo's schlepping their show are intercut with moments from the play-within-a-play that are meant to be inspirational but are mostly screwy bunk. "Is this play they're doing," Nachtrieb said, "a noble effort, or is it ridiculous?"

His characters' quixotic mission, one filled with absurd hardships, is meant to be funny but not dismissed. "In the play, Mona really believes the work she is doing is important and has the potential to change lives, and Terry loves the energy and rhythms of life in the theater, and I guess I have both of those inside me," Nachtrieb said. "Why have I dedicated my life to writing plays? Because I think it's the most effective way for me to contribute to the fabric of the world, and also I love it more than anything else. I do have that self-awareness that the work I do isn't necessarily going to transform millions of people, but I still have the kernel of hope that it actually can affect some people."


"The Making of a Great Moment" will run through Aug. 26 at Z Space. Tickets at (415) 626-0453 or