The Nerd

By - May 1st, 2007 02:52 pm
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An unwanted houseguest can make for good comedy so long as it isn’t your house. Put such a houseguest onstage and, ideally, no one has to suffer. It’s comedy for everybody because no one actually has to live with the person. Such is the case with the late Larry Shue’s smash hit The Nerd. The Milwaukee Rep returns once more to the play it debuted over two decades ago in a production directed by original Nerd star James Pickering.

Looking into Geoffrey M. Curley’s set, one sees the ‘70s slowly bleeding out into the ‘80s – a distinctly awkward time for popular aesthetics. It’s the house of Willum Cubbert, a successful architect who is nevertheless living in Terre Haute, Indiana. Cibbuert is a single guy with friends who include Tansy McGinnis, a soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend leaving for the east coast, played by Melinda Pfundstein and a theatre critic named Axel Hammond played by Torrey Hanson. (The Hammond thing throws me a little. Precisely how big is the theatre scene in Terra Haute, Indiana in 1979? Do they really need a full-time professional theatre critic?)

Shue’s dialogue, always predictably witty, gradually sketches out the casual conflicts of the play until the subject of the title character finally surfaces. As it turns out, the man who saved Cubbert’s life in Viet Nam is in town and just might be stopping by for a visit. He’s a guy from Wisconsin who works in quality control at a chalk factory. Hs name is Rick Steadman and he’s played here by accomplished local comic actor Gerard Neugent. Rick is abrasively difficult to be around, which makes things difficult for Cubbert as he is in negotiations with a client named Warnock Waldgrove (Chris Tarjan). Waldgrove and his wife Clelia (Laura Gordon) are visiting Cubbert to discuss the hotel he is designing for them.

As a whole, the production is solid. Pacing and delivery are every bit as impeccable as one would expect from the Rep. The script my be a classic, but it’s not particularly provocative comedy. The play’s comedy relies pretty heavily on the weird. At one particular high point, Steadman leads the cast in a nearly indecipherable game of “Shoes and Socks.” Nugent is great in the role, carrying it off with a nasally whine that is both annoying and endearing. Shue hands some of the best lines in the play to the critic Axel Hammond. If you’re going to be handing most of the best comic lines in a play to a single actor at The Rep, you’d better be handing them to Torrey Hanson. Hanson is brilliant here, throwing wry lines out from the corners of the script. This is a comedy that doesn’t take itself seriously and Hammond is the vice it uses to mock itself. Laura Gordon also puts in a notable performance here as Waldgrove’s librarian wife. A meek woman with some strange habits, Clelia would be all too easy to play as a comic prop. Gordon’s performance feels natural enough that it isn’t hard to picture her in costume somewhat tensely sitting behind a desk in a library. Brian Vaughn is affable as the emotional center of the play – a guy drifting about in a world that has gone slightly strange.VS

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of The Nerd runs now through May 27th at the Stiemke Theater. Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at 414-224-9490 or online at http://www.milwaukeerep.com.

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