BWW Reviews: The Texas Repertory Theatre Company's THE NERD is Dated but Entertains
The Texas Repertory Theatre Company is opening its ninth season with Larry Shue's THE NERD, a comedic play in two acts. The simplistic comedy had its world premiere at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater in April 1981, and it starred Larry Shue in the role of Willum Cubbert. Glowing press and strong word of mouth eventually enabled the play to open on Broadway, where it played 441 performances from March 22, 1987 to April 10, 1988. Plot wise, there really is not much here. The play centers on the fact that Willum Cubbert was saved by a man named Rick Stedman when they were both in Vietnam. However, Willum was unconscious when his life was saved, so he and Rick have never met. Through ongoing correspondence the ever-grateful Willum has promised to welcome Rick with open arms should he ever come to Terre Haute, Indiana. Out of the blue, Rick turns up at Willum's home and proves himself to be the houseguest from hell.
In choosing the dated farce, Texas Repertory Theatre Company is still offering the mind numbing entertainment for entertainment's sake type of shows associated with summer. What the company and Director Steven Fenley have achieved is a fun night out at the theatre where some truly good laughs are had. Time has not been completely kind to Larry Shue's writing as some jokes that were probably hilarious some 32 years ago simply fall flat. Examples include the ongoing references to Majorie Main who played Ma Kettle (which I had to look up once I got home) and the jarring reference to pedophilia that elicited the evening's most uncomfortable chortles. Another problem the writing runs into is that it vastly utilizes the sitcom format but runs almost the length of five sitcom episodes. Therefore, the action gets monotonous and tedious, especially as we near the 90 minute mark just before intermission. Despite these shortcomings, I must commend Steven Fenley for presenting the play as a period piece and letting the writing live in its original setting of 1979. To update the script would have been a true disservice to the production.
James Monaghan as Rick Stedman perfectly steals the show as the titular nerd and unlikable, stridently obnoxious oddball. He deftly plays up Rick's inept social skills, ensuring that he is completely oblivious and even uncaring of others around him. James Monaghan plays his nerd as a blend of Steve Martin and Pauly Shore, making the screeching, braying, and brash demon the most devastatingly hilarious yet utterly detestable creature imaginable.
Opposite him, Mike Sims' Willum Cubbert is kind to a flaw. Simply put, he lacks a backbone. As the show progresses and his life capsizes at the hands of Rick Stedman, he grows irritable with his guest but lacks the "gumption" (in the words of Tansy, his love interest) to kick the perturbing punk out of his house. Willum endures Rick Stedman for eleven days, and Mike Sims channels his inner David Hyde Pierce as Niles Crane as he completely unravels into fastidious and fussy hysterics. The character is best summarized when Tansy says, "What you are is a good guy, and you're paying for it."
Lauren Dolk's Tansy McGinnis is well put together, sweet, and has career ambitions of being a television news meteorologist in Washington, D.C. As Willum's love interest, she exists to move Willum out of his own head - his selfishness, if you will - and get him to realize that by being a people pleasing workaholic he is ignoring real relationships with human beings that care about him. Likewise, David Walker's Axel Hammond, the bluntly bold and pretentious curmudgeon theater reviewer and friend of Willum's, serves the same purpose. Like the fool in a Shakespearean play, his droll one-liners and keen observations are sardonically biting because of how correct they are.
Rounding out the cast, Lyndsey Sweeney's Clelia Waldgrave is hilariously high strung, Estus Cretsinger's Thor Waldgrave is a riotous terror of a child, and Jeff Lane's Warnock Waldgrave is funny as a stereotypically bad father and stubborn businessman.
I have yet to see a Scenic Design that is anything less than gorgeous and incredible at The Texas Repertory Theatre Company, and I can assure you that Trey Otis' design for THE NERD is no exception. He brilliantly incorporates sweeping curves and rigid right angles to create a set that is contemporary to the late 70s and early 80s. It is an inviting, intriguing, and stunning backdrop for the play. Moreover, it is well decorated, giving it a classy yet homey feeling.