The making of a great 90 minutes was pretty much guaranteed in this case: Z Space playwright-in-residence Peter Sinn Nachtrieb wrote a two-hander specifically for the brilliant San Francisco comic actor Danny Scheie and the equally hilarious (but less familiar to local audiences) Aysan Celik, and Sean Daniels of Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Massachusetts (where the play premiered) directs.
Low-tech and at various times as poignant as it is satirical, “The Making of a Great Moment” is full of theater-insider jokes but is likely to resonate with anyone who’s ever had doubts about personal life choices.
Terry and Mona are Canadian actors doggedly cycling their way through the United States, hired by the unseen, much-maligned Polly, playwright-founder-director of the Victoria Canada Bicycle Theatre Company, to stage her inspirational but downright silly four-hour drama, “Great Moments in Human Achievement.”
Scenes from the declamatory, earnest side-splitter of a play-within-a-play are interspersed with the dynamics between the cynical and ambivalent Terry and the idealistic, vulnerable and messianic Mona, who’s determined that the show must always go on.
Both are exhausted and intermittently dispirited. Mona spends one entire insomniac night in her sleeping bag obsessing over whether to add ad libs to the script; Terry keeps a watchful eye on his cellphone, gloating over the failures of colleagues back home, jealous of their successes.
In the mix are screaming fights, fits of sobbing, malfunctioning lights during community center performances in front of indifferent audiences, a klutzy attempt to erect a roadside tent and the inevitable bike accident and flat tire.
Nachtrieb skillfully interweaves the pair’s escalating bouts of existential despair and fragile renewed determination and the short play-within-a-play scenes.
Those “great moments of human achievement” get funnier and more alarming as they get weirder, depicting discoveries-throughout-the-ages — everything from cheese to Elmer’s glue — made by brave experimentation, by accident, by need to survive, or, ultimately, out of love. The invention of the kiss is a show-stopper.
Among the visual charms: bicycles that seem to move (Apollo Mark Weaver’s clever set design features rolling panels of landscapes), Jessica Ford’s goofy costumes, vertical sleeping bag scenes that are actually perfect trompes l’oeuil.
Daniels finesses every nuance in Nachtrieb’s witty and wonderfully Beckettian script. And the combination of Sheie’s distinctively sardonic voice and penchant for innuendos — and his uncanny ability to relate to the real audience while somehow staying within the world of the play — and Celik’s expressive, changeable face, is a nonstop delight.
The Making of a Great Moment
Presented by Z Space
Where: Z Below, 470 Florida St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; closes Aug. 26
Tickets: $20 to $50
Contact: (415) 626-0453, www.zspace.org