Review: THE NERD Waxes Nostalgic at ALLEY THEATRE

The 1980s farce is back to remind you of pocket protectors and eyeglass tape!

By: Mar. 06, 2024
Review: THE NERD Waxes Nostalgic at ALLEY THEATRE
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THE NERD is one of the comedy classic plays by Larry Shue, who also wrote THE FOREIGNER in the early eighties. Shue was considered one of America’s most talented comedy writers until his tragic death in 1985 from a commuter plane crash in Virginia. It’s one of those “golden nugget” scripts that community theaters and high schools regularly produce because it only requires one set and offers a fast farce paced work that seems deceptively simple to produce. Staging the show now begs the question, what does THE NERD have to say to us here in 2024? The play weaves in themes of selflessness contrasted with selfishness and takes place in 1979 when we all had big honking answering machines and a stereo cabinet that took over half the room. Many people fondly remember seeing or being in THE NERD back in the day, and even the Alley’s artistic director, Rob Melrose, waxes nostalgic about the piece in his program notes. So what are they offering to contrast with the play’s first run in Houston in 1989? Not too much, really. 


THE NERD is frankly still THE NERD, and the director, Brandon Weinbrenner, doesn’t reinvent much of anything. There’s nothing new or fresh, and the script is presented almost as if it would have run back in 1981. There is no discernable reason to remount this show save for the idea that it was fun back in the day. But in this 2024 iteration, I kept waiting for more funny to take over. The farce pacing seemed off, and THE NERD never truly climaxed or hit the high notes it needed to make it soar. It’s comfort food for the audience and probably a frustrating experience for anyone who felt the show was a breath of fresh air when they first saw it. The plot is simple. An architect who owes his life to someone who saved him in Vietnam is given the chance to repay the favor by letting the man stay with him a bit. Yet it turns out his savior is a hopelessly out-of-touch social misfit who bumbles everything. Within days, the architect is losing his job, his girlfriend, and his entire life because of letting this buffoon into his sphere.  

Chris Hutchinson takes on the role of “Rick Steadman,” who is the titular NERD of the entire piece. He plays it broad, he plays it cliche, and he does a serviceable job. He’s most effective when he lets loose his physical comedy chops, but he sometimes seems restrained rather than leveling this character up for modern audiences. Likewise, Christopher Salazar, as the put-upon architect Willum, takes on his role as the largely straight man with the right notes. He’s believable and sincere, but when Willum is supposed to go “off the rails” late in the second act, he seems to pull back. You just want each of them to turn the volume knob up one notch on louder, faster, funnier. They are almost too believable, too down to earth to launch this into farce. 

Ironically, both Chelsea Ryan McCurdy and Sebastian Ramirez, in supporting roles as a mother and son of a gruff hotelier, pull off both the physical comedy and farce the best. McCurdy plays a woman who has an odd nervous tic, and it is hysterical to see her execute this throughout the first act. Her son, played by Ramirez, also masters the physical comedy and shames every adult onstage as his Thor is perfectly pitched to pull off farce.   His physical comedy runs laps around his elders, and he’s a young actor to watch. 

Melissa Pritchett, Shawn Hamilton, and David Rainey round out the supporting cast as the girlfriend, the best friend, and the grouchy boss. All three are solid and firmly in this world. Shawn Hamilton, as the character theater critic Axel, is given the best lines, but he almost throws them away rather than making them pointed enough to read as comedy. Melissa Pritchett is charming playing Tansy, but watching her reminded me how little women had to do back in the eighties scripts, which kept them simple. Tansy seems to just sling food and wax poetically on how she wants to be a weather girl. David Rainey is great at physical comedy, portraying Waldgrave, and he gets the best entrance of the night.   

Technically, things are much better. There is a gorgeous set from Tim Mackabee that captures late 70s chic so well I could see THE BRADY BUNCH charging on that stage at any moment. During the proceedings, Jane Shaw wrangles some wonderful sound design to make the answering machine a full-on character. Haydee Zelideth has an eye for the era as well, and her costumes are impeccable. 

Revisiting THE NERD was like picking up my old Atari from back in the eighties. It wasn’t as fun as I remembered, and everything seemed far too simple to hold my attention now that I am of a certain age. I just don’t see what this work has to say now, but I did enjoy all of the classic eighties-style music that ran before the show and during intermission. It should be a nice diversion if you want to wax nostalgic, but I feel like it could be faster, funnier, and louder. If you really want me to fall in love with this piece again, bring it more gumption. This is not the time to play it straight. But if you want to rely on a hazy memory of Mark Hamill on Broadway, it could all work for you. 

THE NERD runs at The Alley Theatre through March 17th. There are evening and matinee performances throughout the week, and there are plenty of parking options in the theater district. The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes and has one fifteen-minute intermission.