To say that the the current production at Peninsula Community Theatre is one big joke would be an understatement. Written by Larry Shue, who many saw as the comic heir apparent to Neil Simon before his untimely death, The Nerd works best when the situational and physical comedy is on full display.
Set in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1979, The Nerd is light on plot and relies heavily on the audience’s understanding of the characters and their stakes in the show’s increasingly outlandish events.
As the play opens it is the eve of Willum Cubbert’s thirty-fourth birthday, and both he and the audience are surprised as his best friends and roommates, Axel, a drama critic, and Tansy, Willum’s not-so-secret yet unprofessed love interest, jump out to greet him. Through some lovely dialogue and a finicky answering machine, we learn that Willum’s birthday party guest list will include not only his friends, but also his current client with wife and child in tow, and, to his great surprise, Rick Steadman.
It is immediately clear from the voice on the machine that Rick is the titular nerd, but, as Willum relates, he also happens to be a fellow soldier who saved Willum’s life in Vietnam. Though the two have never met, they have kept up a correspondence via the mail, with Willum offering an open invitation to Rick should he ever need anything.
As we wait for the party to start, we learn that Willum is anything but a go-getter. He allows his client to alter his designs, his friend Axel makes him the butt of many a joke, and he is about to let Tansy, the woman of his dreams, slip out of his life as she pursues her dream of being a weather girl in Washington, DC.
Things don’t get much better for Willum when Waldgrave, his client, arrives with his family. The Waldgrave’s eight-year-old son Thor locks himself in Willum’s bedroom and plays dress up with his underwear. The client’s long-suffering wife, Clelia, also abuses his belongings and Mr. Waldgrave, Ticky to his friends, continually asks Willum to remove all the character from his designs for Waldgrave’s newest hotel.
Enter Rick Steadman, who has somehow convinced himself that this soiree is a costume party, and the real driving humor, both verbal and physical, kicks in. As one would assume there is intensifying friction between Rick and pretty much everyone else. When it becomes clear Rick plans to take up residence on Willum’s couch, the audience is left wondering just how long Willum’s good graces will last. To say much more might spoil the end, but suffice it to say the lengths that friends will go to for each other is realized in grand fashion in Act II.
Willum is played by Dustin Burton, and while he definitely gets marks for hitting the mopish, resigned Willum of the early part of the show, his character’s growth felt less than fully realized, making the end of the play less impactful than it might have otherwise been. Adding to that feeling of incompleteness was a lack of chemistry between Burton and the play’s lead actress, Kate Goddin.
Goddin does well as the sweet and determined Tansy, and her scenes with Louise Casini Hollis, who’s wonderful as the on-the-edge Clelia Waldgrave, are high points in the show. But unfortunately neither Goddin, nor Rob Fortner, who offers a humorous performance as the likeably offensive Axel Hammond, feel like Burton’s contemporaries. In fact this reviewer heard several whispered conversations throughout the play as audience members debated whether Tansy and Axel were indeed married and if Willum was in fact their son.
Alongside Hollis, Ben Jenkins as Ticky Waldgrave is enjoyable as the opinionated business man and father to Christopher Christian’s Thor. Christian was very poised and committed to his tiny terror of a character and brought one of the biggest laughs of the night as he too gets caught up in the confusion brought by the arrival of the nerd.
As Rick Steadman, Craig McCloud brings the nerd quite convincingly to life. McCloud’s performance is best when he is channeling the archetypal nerd, embodied wonderfully by him through a large portion of the play with the help of great vocal work and a spot-on costume by Cheryl Nabati and Carole-Sue Fiest. I will point out that there were times when his physicality felt less like that of the stereotypical nerd and more like the movements of a person on the autism spectrum. Because his character, and the other character’s reactions to him, are the source of much of the humor, at times it made this audience member start to feel slightly uncomfortable.
Mike Diana clearly directed this show for the inherent humor, and it succeeds wonderfully in places, but the stakes for these characters, the reason the audience should care, lies more in the subtext, and that is where I feel the play falls a little short. Willum’s coming of age isn’t fully realized, because we never really understand what he wants. Tanzy and Willum’s relationship is so undefined that their several near-kisses feel forced and uncomfortable. Axel, whose own motives remain the most mysterious, never feels invested in anything more than the bottle of Jack Daniels he so lovingly fondles throughout the show.
I would also have liked to see all of the production elements push harder towards defining the time frame of the play. The lack of specificity in era made it slightly confusing when they began to talk about Vietnam. Neither the costumes, nor the set, felt particularly reminiscent of the era and added yet another moment of confusion for the audience as they try to place the action of the play in time.
The set design by Patty Ellison did allow plenty of space for the cast to work out some especially silly scenes, but I was puzzled by the lack of a dining space when there are two dinner party scenes in the show that would have been better served by a real table and chairs than a converted coffee table.
The costumes, aside from McCloud’s, didn’t really seem to reflect the characters or the era. Fortner and Goddin in particular seemed to be aged up by their clothing, when they needed exactly the opposite to really create a cohesive trio with Burton.
No sound designer is credited, but the company did a fine job, especially with the answering machine, which felt almost like a character in the show. It was a prop heavy show and Jym Newton did a nice job realizing all of the items.
Jared Alexander’s lighting design complimented the set very nicely, though I will say I found the abruptness of the first cue of each act rather jarring, which may have made sense at the opening of Act I but seemed very out of place at the beginning of Act II.
Overall, if you are looking for a night of light-hearted laughs and a few surprises, you will most likely find what you are looking for at PCT. The show runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:30pm, now through May 19th. Tickets can be purchased here.