Spots' "Nerd": Geek is Chic and Lots of Fun
Beige. The first thing that will strike you when you enter Spotlighters' theatre space is that the entire set (smartly designed by Peter Fox), which includes a real-looking kitchen area, a foyer, a den and a living room, is various shades of beige. Not what you might expect for a comedy called The Nerd, which opened last weekend at Spotlighters. But get into the very first few minutes of the play and you soon realize it is the perfect color for our hero, Willum Cubbert (Randy Dunkle). Willum, with a wardrobe that is beige, stuck in bachelorhood, girlfriend soon to depart for DC, and seriously unhappy with the turn his job as an architect has taken, is a beige person –. No color, no emotion, no gumption to change. Beige.
Well, it isn't for lack of colorful characters in his life – Tansy (Nikki Cimino), his weather girl girlfriend is a little firecracker of energy, his best friend, Axel (Peter Fox) is a droll, clever, witty drama critic (he writes the reviews before he gets there and leaves before the show is over. Can I have his job?). His current client is hotel-mogul Warnock Waldgrave, a pompous, blustery man with no eye for anything close to aesthetic. He brings his family to a birthday dinner party: his wife, Clelia (Shandra Patrick), a bundle of nerves who likes to break dishes to relieve her stress, and his small son, Thor (Quentin Patrick) a spoiled terror of a kid with the constitution of a limp noodle. But the most colorful of all is his soon-to-arrive army savior, Rick Steadman (Fred Nelson). It seems that during the Vietnam War, Steadman dragged a wounded Willum to safety, saving his life, earning both Purple Hearts, and Steadman earns a vow by Willum to always be there to repay the debt he feels he owes his buddy.
To say that hilarity ensues is to seriously diminish the hearty laughs that happen throughout the evening, which goes by so fast; it is disappointing when it is over. True, the script really goes no deeper than a sitcom, but the characters are interesting, the plot interesting, and the ending a surprise. The physical comedy is an absolute scream – I may never look at deviled eggs or brown paper bags the same way again. And the sharp verbal humor is also plentiful. Directed by the very talented Randy Dalmas (last year's superbly tense And Then There Were None at the same venue), it is clear that he and his perfectly cast company of actors spent much time on chemistry, because they have it in large supply. And it is equally apparent that they are having a wonderful time performing the play, especially the extended physical sequences. I imagine they are pretty exhausted by the final curtain. Perhaps the only flaw of any significance in the direction is that, unlike his previous effort which was taut and timed to within a nanosecond, The Nerd suffers from a bit of poor timing in places where there is simply witty dialogue happening. Most of the time, it occurs around one actor, Peter Fox, as he slings out his nasty, funny barbs at an alarming rate. His timing is not the issue, rather it is any other actor whose lines overlap his (they shouldn't in this case) or there is an odd pause by other actors which takes much from Mr. Fox's deft personal timing. I suspect that repeated performances will solve this problem, thus upping the laugh quotient even higher.
Real-life mother and son, Shandra and Quentin Patrick, play very well together - she, with a constant look of nervousness, and he with a bratty gleam in his eye. Ms. Patrick handles the demands of her role with aplomb – she is mousy, but still present, and a bundle of nerves without being annoying. Master Patrick works the crowd and set alike, unafraid it seems of being embarrassed, he really seems to relish making an entrance with red heart covered boxer shorts on this head and a towel for a cape. The kid is natural, and even faints convincingly.
Thom Eric Sinn brings a delightful depth to what could easily be a one-dimensional character. Wisely, he modulates his bluster so as to create a series of uproarious laughs, rather than a one note downpour of yelling. He milks every last drop out of an excellent slow burn, and his nasty way with our hero makes you want to cheer at what happens when he makes his final entrance in act two. You don't really think I'm going to tell, do you?
Tansy, a fun role, is taken to extra comical heights by Nikki Cimino, even if she is saddled with the most ridiculous wig I think I've ever seen onstage, which is funny for all the wrong reasons. Wig aside, Miss Cimino walks that fine line between caring nag and girlfriend who cares. And she throws herself whole-heartedly into the physical comedy as well. What is particularly nice about her portrayal are the little looks and gestures she shares with her three male co-stars. In the midst of chaos, you still see that she loves her man, her friends and even her enemy.
As best friend Axel, Peter Fox as mentioned gets some great material to work with. With a deliciously devilish gleam in his eye, he cuts everyone to the quick the sharp criticism, but with a light heart (think Will in Will and Grace). It helps a great deal that Mr. Fox is attractive and has charisma virtually pouring out of his body. You can't help but watch him just to see what Axel is up to. It is a credit to the actor that he moderates his performance so as not to steal the show, which he could easily do.
The title character, Rick Steadman, is played with first-rate comic flair by Fred Nelson. This is a difficult role to play – it would be easy to slip into stereotypes and stay there and there is a fine, fine line between funny annoying and annoying annoying. Fortunately, Mr. Nelson knows how to play both cast and audience like a fiddle. We hang on his every word and motion. And it is even easy to take it when you realize that there is a little nerd in all of us. And man, is he funny! Again, like Mr. Fox, Nelson realizes that there are times when the play isn't just about him, generously giving everyone else a chance to shine. That they can hold their own against such a robust characterization is a credit to everyone on that stage.
The main character, though, is Willum, played in a superbly underplayed way by Randy Dunkle. It is hard to be the straight man for much of the play, where every other person on the stage has their outrageous moment, and Mr. Dunkle does so with a professional level performance. He, like his character, has to choose his moments. Dunkle is a master at befuddlement, at sincerity, and at conveying inner turmoil. He could have easily settled for some fidgety mannerisms and the de rigueur stutter; he goes leagues beyond that, making every single moment he is onstage count. The looks of shock, then awe then utter disgust at his savior are priceless. Watching him struggle through the chief dilemma of the play – how do you turn away someone who saved your life – gives the play an emotional core, which is much needed to give the play a little weight. A less gifted actor would likely have left this detail out of his performance in favor of stealing a few laughs for himself.
This is a slick production from beige start to uproarious conclusion. Even the answering machine – sound designed by Mr. Nelson – becomes a character. The laughs are plentiful – I can practically guarantee a sore tummy the next day – and the tone is as light as a midsummer snowball from the neighborhood stand. What a great way to spend a late spring evening!
PHOTOS: TOP to BOTTOM: The Nerd Company; Thom Eric Sinn, Quentin Patrick and Shandra Patrick; Nikki Cimino, Peter Fox and Randy Dunkle; Fred Nelson and Randy Dunkle.
From This Author James Howard