The Making of a Great Moment comes off as flawed entertainment: it’s likable, often funny, and is clearly trying — but failing — to say something.
The Making of a Great Moment by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb. Directed by Sean Daniels. Staged by the Merrimack Repertory Theatre at 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA, through January 29
By Erik Nikander
In his new script The Making of a Great Moment, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb dramatizes the plight of two Canadian actors who are taking a play on a bicycle tour through a culture-starved United States. Actors Mona Barnes and Terry Dean (played by Aysan Celik and Danny Scheie in the Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s world premiere production) are not just interested in serving up entertainment — they hope this theatrical exercise will be of real significance. Mona believes that the show really matters, but Terry, the more experienced performer of the two, has his doubts. His skepticism is a commonplace anxiety among those who try to make a career in the arts. Yet, despite the relevance and power of the issue, why did Nachtrieb’s play leave me so unmoved?
Well, much of the problem is rooted in the oddball nature of the play-within-the-play that Mona and Terry are biking across rural New Hampshire to perform. Called Great Moments in Human Achievement, the production appears to consist of Terry and Mona performing a series of monologues, each revolving around a historical person who has a moment of profound inspiration or discovery. The creation of the first bicycle is covered; there’s the explosive invention of gunpowder; a king and queen go through the methodical process of discovering the art of kissing.
These brief monologues are interspersed throughout the play, and are often performed by way of silly paper-doll costumes and goofy accents. For the most part, they’re pretty amusing. But we’re told that Mona and Terry’s play is made up of over four hundred of these monologues and that the epic runs for more than four hours! We’re also assured that the rest-home patients and community theatre audiences subjected to this theatrical marathon respond very well to it, an idea that strains credulity, even in a play with touches of the fantastic. A four-hour run time is a daunting prospect for even a great play (such as Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh); the show in question here arouses visions of a long-winded history lecture from Hell.
Dramatically, the quality of the play-within-the-play is essential in order to establish a convincing conflict between the two actors. If we don’t believe the play they’re performing is brilliant and powerful, Mona’s devotion becomes hard to take seriously. The bulk of the ‘action’ in The Making of a Great Moment takes the form of an emotional tug-of-war between Mona and Terry, a clash between her idealistic belief in the material they have to work with and his cynical reservations. But, because the play in question sounds like an interminable mess, Terry’s quibbles seem completely reasonable. And Mona’s obsessive devotion to the work comes across as alternately pitiable and pathological.
There are other dramaturgical problems as well. On the positive side, the dialogue tends to be clever and there are plenty of chuckle-worthy gags. But the storyline doesn’t always make much sense, particularly the last-minute romantic interlude between our two beleaguered actors, which comes out of nowhere. It feels especially forced since throughout the play it is implied (again and again, to an almost cartoonish degree) that Terry is gay. Celik and Scheie do a solid job of sustaining the show’s momentum through their own theatrical energy and high spirits, but Sean Daniels’ direction could use a little fine-tuning. Some of the back-and-forth rhythms of the dialogue, as well as the timing of a few jokes, felt a hair off.
The technical aspects of the show are well executed, though there is not a lot out of the ordinary. There are a couple moments of distinctive stagecraft; for instance, when the clever set design gives us a chance to see Terry and Mona lying in their sleeping bags from a top-down perspective, or when the shifting lines on a strip of road conveys the sense of highway travel. At other times, though, the handmade, ad hoc quality of the set and props feels less charming than hastily-built or unfinished. The script’s detours into the fantastic suggest there were opportunities for more creativity and invention. For example, Brian J. Lilienthal’s lighting design is fine, but there could have been more playfulness — given that Great Moment is a play about the comic misfortunes of a play.
Thus The Making of a Great Moment comes off as flawed entertainment. It’s likable, often funny, and is clearly trying to say something. But the attempt to be more than a comic diversion is undercut by the play’s irritating tendency to romanticize the struggle of artists, almost arguing that art becomes more important or ‘genuine’ when it is produced out of hardship. (The old cliche that a starving, tortured artist creates better art.) The notion that creative types can and should do more with less is the kind of destructive prejudice that should be fought against, not reinforced! So, for all of Nachtrieb’s buoyant, cheeky sense of humor, and the good-naturedness of the MRT’s staging, The Making of a Great Moment does a disservice to the very craft it wants to celebrate.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.