Adam Paul's and Scott Smith's hilarious short comedy "King of the Moon" has a simple premise at its heart. As Paul's Buzz Aldrin says to Smith's Neil Armstrong, "There are no parades for the second man on the moon."
The play, one of 50 being performed at the Sixth Annual NoHo Arts Festival this weekend, recreates the tension that could have built up inside Apollo 11 as Armstrong waited to make history and Aldrin to become a footnote in it.
Given its first readings at the Road Theatre in North Hollywood, "King of the Moon" recently ran for four standing-room-only performances at the HBO Workspace, off Melrose Avenue. It is the first play-writing effort by the actors, who have been friends since they were students at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater.
A Van Nuys resident, Smith says the play was conceived in 1994, when every media outlet in the country was interviewing Armstrong and Aldrin on the 25th anniversary of their famous flight. Smith watched as Aldrin was asked by a TV reporter how it was decided who would be the first man out. "Buzz gave a very official answer, but there was something in his voice," he says.
Intrigued, Paul and Smith began researching the flight and the two astronauts. They came up with a wealth of factoids that ended up being put to good comic use in the play, such as Aldrin's father's 1936 trip to Berlin on the Hindenburg.
And from the official transcripts of the flight, obtained from NASA, the writers learned the astronauts were supposed to take a nap before walking on the moon. In fact, understandably eager to leave their vehicle, the astronauts decided to skip the nap and let Armstrong take his famous "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
But Paul and Smith imagined what would have happened if the astronauts had stayed inside the capsule and, instead of napping, squabbled like two little kids over who should go first. "Why wasn't I picked for the team? That's the basic issue," says Smith.
The play lets the actors explore the rivalries that are rarely acknowledged after childhood, but continue long after we stop taunting each other on the playground. Instead of the stoic astronauts of movies and TV, these two constantly jockey for power and can be as mean as Dogbert.
The play also touches on the randomness of our lives, even the lives of high-powered, in-charge types like astronauts. As Smith points out, Aldrin was certainly a contender to be king of the moon. But the spacecraft's hatch was designed so the astronauts had to emerge one at a time, and we all know who snatched the lunar crown.
Early in the writing process, Smith recalls, "We were both writing Buzz and we were neglecting Neil." To create an effective foil for the sarcastic, somewhat prissy Aldrin of their fiction, the writers found "We had to dumb Neil down a bit" and make him more of a good ol' boy, Scott says.
Instead of a realistic-looking set and authentic space-age costumes, "King of the Moon" evokes space as an entire generation of boys and girls have imagined it. This is moonshot as sleepover, which is why Smith originally dreamed of doing the play in "kids' pajamas with little silver feeties" (they couldn't find any big enough so ended up doing the play in white long johns).
"It looks like two kids playing in the basement, sitting on their dads' easy chairs," says Smith.
Smith admits he loved to play astronaut as a child. "I think it's the coolest job ever invented, and it was in science fiction before it was real," he rhapsodizes. "And I was always fascinated by the thought of someone being shot off into the void with nothing but technology to save you."
Both Paul and Smith are actors who work regularly but still need day jobs. Smith's film and TV credits include the upcoming "X-Files" movie, but he continues to work as a bartender at a Westside Hamburger Hamlet.
Paul does voice-overs and has appeared in a number of films and TV shows, but pays the rent by temping. For both, one of the great pleasures of doing "King of the Moon" has been creating a showcase for themselves.
"I think that's a mistake that a lot of actors make," says Paul. "They wait around until somebody else gives them permission to act."
Smith agrees that writing your own vehicle is a lot more rewarding than waiting for the phone to ring. Smith imagines that he and Paul will be able to reinvent and play these characters forever, even when they are as old as, say, John Glenn. They are currently writing a version for the screen.
Next, Paul and Smith want to take "King of the Moon" to New York. Wherever the project goes, Smith knows his wife and fellow actor, Elizabeth Sampson, will cheer them on. She's the perfect astronaut wife, Smith jokes: "She suffers silently and is there for us every time we launch."
"King of the Moon," Saturday and Sunday at 3:30 p.m., the Road Theatre in Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Free. (818) 761-8838.