BWW Review: Larry Shue's THE NERD at Stage West Community Playhouse
Warnock (to a drama critic): "You get to see all the shows for free?"
Axel (the drama critic): "No, just the important ones."
Warnock: "Anything good?"
When a young artist's life is cut short, it is a tragedy on a completely different level. We often think of the works that they never would finish, the world denied their future greatness. The obvious example is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who died at 35; imagine what delicious musical masterpieces we could enjoy had he lived to, say, 70 or 80. But there's so many more in so many fields, people like Joe Orton, Keith Haring, Jimi Hendrix, John Kennedy Toole, Selena, James Dean, John Keats and Tupac, to name a fated handful. Add playwright Larry Shue to this sad and illustrious list. The victim of an airplane crash when he was still in the his thirties, Shue would leave behind an oeuvre that contained two near-brilliant farces, works that seem stronger now than when first performed in the 1980's: The sadly still-pertinent The Foreigner and the goofy and funny THE NERD. When it played at London's West End in 1986, THE NERD was the top-grossing American play.
Both of Shue's standout farces are now community theatre staples. Although The Foreigner is the better of the two, funnier and more pungent in its aim while more in line with our current crazy times, THE NERD seems more accessible. The story is rather simple: Willum Cubbert is a wet noodle who glides through his boring life. An architect, he is attracted to Tansy but hasn't taken the relationship to the next level. He's best friends with a drama critic, Axel, who is known as a "classic curmudgeon." Enter Rick Steadman, the nerd who came to dinner, the man who saved Willum's life years earlier in the war. Steadman is so off the wall, as if from another planet, a bespectacled mess, a geek Godzilla who will not leave. Who hasn't had that obnoxious dinner guest who stays and stays after a party? In THE NERD, Steadman doesn't just leave; he takes over Willum's home and life, like a giant bundle of kudzu personified. Will Willum have the guts to confront the man who saved his life and ultimately throw him out? Will he also consummate his relationship with Tansy? And will the play have a twist ending to boot? You betcha.
You can see how the answers to the above questions come to life by venturing to Spring Hill and seeing Stage West Community Playhouse's current production of THE NERD in the Forum. It's a fun, breezy show, with a couple of performances here that work. But it's also a production that hasn't quite found itself, or at least hadn't found itself on the night that I saw it. Some fumbled lines, long pauses as if someone missed a cue, and a lack of energy seemed to plague the show. One only hopes that these elements come together, because THE NERD really is funny.
W. Paul Wade is marvelously memorable in the title role. With his taped-together glasses, Wade's nerd is lumbering, imposing, a Goliath of Geekiness, like John Goodman haunted with the spirit of Urkel. Imagine Cliff Clavin meets Chris Farley's Matt Foley, and you get an idea of what's in store. (Wade's Steadman is also a dead ringer for my elementary school music teacher, Mr. Mason.) Wade takes over the stage like a tsunami. He sits and plays with a stuffed duck, positioning his autographed photo of Alex Trebek, just right, and says the most inane things. He's a scene stealer, and since the show's title is THE NERD, that's a good thing. Whenever Wade is onstage, the play becomes much better. Still, he could have taken the role to an even further level, upping the energy even more, but he's a hoot and we are thankful that he's there.
Devin Devi makes the most of the part of Axel, the drama critic. There's an undercurrent of mischievousness in him, and you can see the character smile at his own cleverness. Looking not unlike a bearded Mark Wahlberg, he is so energetic that he sometimes taps his toes as he speaks, grinning and gregarious. You also see the actor try to zap the show with energy, trying his heart out to jolt it to life. But oftentimes he is staged to sit in a chair, facing the audience directly, and talk for very long periods of time. Still, he and Wade are the standouts of the production.
Devi is a real actor, and you see him react and always in the moment. Except for one time. Near the end, when things get more than a little bizarre, Devi and some of his cohorts break character and start laughing at the hilarity onstage. Some audience members might enjoy watching that, like they did in the Debbie Downer days of SNL, but I find it off-putting and unprofessional. (I know, I know, it's community theatre; but I think community theaters should strive to be as professional as possible.) These wink-wink little onstage titters at a show that should be funnier break the illusion of a play that is not meant to be presentational in nature. And they break one of my unwritten rules of theatre: If your name is not Harvey Korman or Tim Conway, never - NEVER - break character.
The striking Jessica Virginia has her moments at Tansy, but I never sensed her relationship or near-relationship with Willum. She had more sparks with Devi's Axel. Jacob Marko as Thor Waldgrave, a little boy who often screams and locks himself in the bathroom, shows much promise. Matthew Root and Kathy Capelle play Thor's parents, and Drew Hackworth heads the cast as the unassertive Willum.
The actors try hard, but the pacing is execrable. It should flow like dominoes, but the production is like one domino fell and the rest just stayed upright for over two hours. Imagine a seesaw that doesn't go up, doesn't go down, but just stays level, and that's the feeling for much of the show. There are certainly crazy bits--like a scene where the cast put paper bags over their heads, looking like a poor man's Halloween party--that should be even more frantic, zanier. The slow, talky beginning is fine because it's exposition, but the pace never changes after that; it's like the whole play became one, long exposition.
The talented director, Dave Stenger, certainly knows how to stage a play, but he needs to work on the characters' relationships, energy, and timing. Terry Stenger's costumes work well, except for the businessman Warnock Waldgrave's attire in the first scene. I like how Steadman's Halloween costume, one that frightens young Thor, has been changed from a dinosaur to the Grim Reaper; Death is certainly scarier than some dinosaur. And David Stenger's set is serviceable and nicely gets the job done.
THE NERD is harmless fun, a treat for the whole family, and I'm sure my qualms with some of the production will be fixed and the pace will pick up as the show continues.
I know that this is a community theatre production and that most of the actors are not professional, but if you've read my past reviews, then you know that I am fair but very honest. I hold all theaters--school, community and professional--to a higher standard. If something doesn't work, would it be fair for me to falsely say that it does? I know that some people may mistake my honesty for harshness, but I write out of a love for theatre. I want to see the best of the best; I want to shout from the mountaintops so that others may celebrate my love as well. And I love Stage West; they have an amazing facility with an amazing group of volunteers and artists. They have so much potential; I can't wait to see what they have in store for audiences next!
THE NERD ends its run on September 15th. For tickets, please call (352) 683-5113.