BWW Review: The Milwaukee Rep Unleashes THE NERD
An unwelcome houseguest. Ludicrous scenarios that leave our good-natured protagonist in one pickle after another. A stuffy old boss and his nervous wife. An aspiring weather girl. A highfalutin theater critic. A nightmare kid named Thor. A set that wonderfully reeks of the 70s. It's all here in Larry Shue's The Nerd.
Having made its debut at the Milwaukee Rep back in 1981, you can tell there's a lot of anticipation surrounding the homecoming of this ridiculous comedy. The Rep even calls The Nerd "one of the funniest plays ever written." But humor, like art, is subjective. So are the laughs necessarily guaranteed?
The thing about The Nerd is it's a farce, which The Rep's audience guide breaks down as "a specific style of comedy characterized by unlikely predicaments, verbal humor, mistaken identities, and physical comedy." So within farce, one encounters absurd situations, fast-paced wit, and a touch of slapstick. In other words, there's a little something funny for everyone.
The Nerd is the story of Willum Cubbert, a down-to-earth architect whose friends, Tansy and Axel, throw him a surprise birthday party. But to the surprise of all parties, someone from Willum's past is about to drop in for a visit. That person is Rick Steadman, a man who saved Willum's life a decade ago in Vietnam. Rick and Willum have never met, just exchanged letters and Christmas cards saying that if there's ever anything Rick needs, Willum's door is always open.
Well, Rick turns out to be as half-witted and loony as they come. Following incidents with deviled eggs, paper bags on heads, and a puffed-up boss covered in sludge, Rick continues to overstay his welcome as Willum nobly attempts to repay this buffoon for having saved his life.
The entire play, though often absurd, somehow also remains grounded, setting this farce apart from others. Willum and Tansy engage in a romantic will-they-won't-they for an undercurrent that's sweet and real. Together with Axel, these three seem like a normal, good-natured trio of friends, the kind you'd want to sit around, laugh, and drink with on a Friday night.
To bring these characters to life, The Rep has assembled an excellent ensemble. First up, there's Michael Doherty as the titular nerd. As Rick, the man who carries a back-up tambourine and whose job is an assembly line chalk inspector, Doherty plays the part at the intersection of a dopey Dwight Schrute and the ultimate man-child. Armed with an exaggerated Wisconsin accent and a commitment to creating a Rick that's downright gross, Doherty tackles this grating character with ease. At times, this Rick is a total cringe-inducing turn-off and you just want him to stop, for the love of God! But isn't that the point of this particular antagonist?
Opposite Doherty is Andy Nagraj as the level-headed Willum. Nagraj is likeable from the get-go. In moments when he gives into the more extreme farcical humor, the range of his comedic chops becomes clear. Also showing that range is Alex Kelper as Tansy and Jeremy Peter Johnson as Axel. Witty and warm, these two take us from a believable chummy candor to the extremes of physical comedy. Put simply, they're great.
While Willum and Tansy are busy with their slow-burning romance, writer Larry Schue gives Axel the bulk of the whip-smart wit in The Nerd. Keep your ears perked for his ongoing commentary. It's hands-down one of my favorite parts of the show, and Johnson delivers the onslaught of droll observation with ample comedic savvy. See? There's humor for everyone. If you thought farce meant lack-of-wit, Axel will having you thinking again -- and cracking up laughing.
Another surprising string of laugh-out-loud moments come courtesy of the Waldgraves, Willum's buttoned-up boss, his wife, and their son Thor. The three stop by Willum's surprise birthday party, only to get tangled up in Rick's crackpot antics. Clelia Waldgrave, played by Lillian Castillo, startles the audience with her kooky method of dealing with the stress her dysfunctional family causes her. I won't say how -- it's too good and Castillo is too hysterically funny to give it away -- but let's just say it goes to show not only the genius of Shue's script, but also the quality of the actors gathered here.
One of the best things about The Nerd is that, through all this SNL-esque humor, a charming and heartwarming twist waits at the very end. So yes, expect to cringe at Rick's antics. Expect to watch four people watch an apple core turn brown (yep, that happens, and it's hilarious). What you might not expect is how the ending sneaks up makes this play stick with you, musing over good deeds done anonymously. The Rep picked the perfect time of year to unleash Rick Steadman on an unsuspecting audience.
Photo credit: Michael Brosilow