BWW Review: Larry Shue's THE NERD at Chaffin's Barn
Larry Shue's The Nerd brings with it a fairly healthy and reasonably impressive theater pedigree: more than 400 performances on Broadway, critical acclaim and audience adulation for its West End run (in fact, it was the most successful American play running there in 1986), scores of regional and community Theater Productions and it was the follow-up to his wonderfully funny and politically prescient The Foreigner. But like so many things that were popular during the 1980s - the "abdominizer," Cabbage Patch kids and friendship bracelets, Jelly shoes and Jordache jeans - time hasn't been so great to The Nerd and we're left wondering, incredulously and imploringly, "What the hell?"
The current production of The Nerd, now onstage at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre in Nashville through April 23, may have been plagued by opening night nerves, the gods of theater were not on the side of the cast and crew or maybe I was in a bad mood and just didn't realize it. But The Nerd came off as a plodding, confusing mish-mash of comic conundrums that didn't measure up to the farcical adventure we were hoping to experience. In fact, at intermission, I tried wildly (and in vain, I might add) to locate a hostage negotiator to come get me out of there!
I wanted out because I love The Barn and everything about it: The new menu really is superb (the prime rib is perfectly prepared and succulent), the atmosphere of a theatrical home reverberates even more strongly than before, and the people you meet there are just about as nice and friendly a group of individuals with whom you would want to spend some time and so I arrived in hopes of giving The Nerd a rave notice. Instead the play's two-and-a-half hours (including a 15-minute intermission, which may have run longer on opening night) seemed to play out in real time - I just assumed I had been there for a week by the time I stumbled through the "enjoyed it" line, clutching every cast member by her or his shoulders to thank them for freeing me.
Clearly, I exaggerate (in the written tradition of a good spit-take), but while The Nerd has its moments (as witnessed by my thunderous guffaws and laugh-out-loud responses), its subject matter just can't sustain more than two hours onstage in the 21st Century, no matter how talented the cast and crew and certainly no matter the show's literary lineage. Further, opening night was marred by a myriad of forgotten lines and wayward set pieces and transitions that happened during the first act (the second stanza, however weird the situations written into Shue's script, was performed with more confidence).
Brett Cantrell, as the eponymous nerd of the show's title, is supremely funny and terrifically adept at physical comedy, transforming himself into each character he portrays onstage. When he is onstage and, well, acting up, as it were, the antics become electrified and the energy fairly crackles as he elevates the hijinks on the written page. Virtually every time he walks onstage (whether in this play or others in which we have seen him), he is guaranteed to transform the most humdrum of scripts to something special.
The queen of Nashville theater - and one of my all-time favorites, truth be told - Martha Wilkinson, cast in the supporting role of the wacky wife of an officious businessman (played by the stalwart John Mauldin, saddled by a poorly written and weakly developed character), proves once again why she wears that crown. Wilkinson's impeccable timing and expert delivery of even the most mundane of lines ensures she can get the biggest laughs with the simplest of reactions. For example, she simply uttered "Piano" to Mauldin and I was practically on the floor, reduced by gales of laughter to a simpering, whimpering pile of bones.
Unfortunately, Cantrell and Wilkinson and their estimable bags of theatrical tricks aren't enough to make Shue's play funnier than it is written. Nor can the solid directorial efforts of veteran Bradley Moore, who has cast the show with some of our favorite actors (Joel Diggs, Corinne Bupp and Antonio P. Nappo, each of whom have dazzled us in past performances on any number of Nashville stages) and the debut of a theatrical scion (Aiden Mauldin, John's son, makes his very first appearance as the son of his dad's character), save this piece of sh- (I mean "show," obviously, so get your minds out of the gutter).
All the requisite elements are in place for an evening's pleasant diversion: splendid pre-show meal, warm welcome and the presence of an audience with whom the show fared far better than it did with me, the grizzled theater critic who's been around the block 4,827 times. Moore's set design is terrific, as are Jamie Lynn Scott's pitch-perfect costumes and Joy Tilley Perryman's carefully curated props. And while we might poke fun at everyone because of this stinker of a show, we can all rest easy that they will all be back in winning form next time at bat (don't let me down, Beau Jest).
The Nerd. By Larry Shue. Directed by Presented by Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre, 8204 Highway 100, Nashville. Running through April 23. For reservations, call (615) 646-9977; for further details, go to www.dinnertheatre.com. Running time: 2.5 hours (with one 15-minute intermission).