**1/2 (out of ****)
When I learned that playwright Larry Shue’s The Nerd was once again being produced by the Milwaukee Rep where it first appeared back in the 1980s, I was instantly attracted and made tracks to my old hometown. It seemed as though the comedy, billed by The Rep as “one of the funniest plays ever written” would mark a harmonic convergence of sorts for me.
First, I had taken in the terrific 2004 Roundabout Theatre Company mounting of Shue’s hysterical The Foreigner with Matthew Broderick in the title role. I can honestly tell you I don’t remember laughing any harder than I did for that performance.
Second, The Nerd was essentially coming home to its Milwaukee roots complete with direction from James Pickering. His participation is particularly intriguing given he had played the original Nerd when the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre first staged The Nerd back in 1981, and he did so opposite the late Shue, who was killed just four years later in a tragic plane crash.
Third, the 1987 Broadway production of The Nerd that enjoyed 441 performances was directed by the late Charles Nelson Reilly, who -– as I noted just last week when he passed away -- helmed one of my own seminal theatre experiences: Julie Harris in The Belle Of Amherst at Milwaukee’s Pabst Theatre, which now adjoins The Rep’s current home.
I thought, “How could this miss?”
For starters, The Nerd simply has not aged well. Yes, there are some very funny bits, but it’s far from the uproarious comedy that’s promised. The humor now seems old and creaky. Too many of the lines intended to elicit guffaws instead fall flat -- often because they are too time specific. With many similarities to The Foreigner, including one key plot point on mistaken identity, it seemed as though I had seen much of this before.
Set in November of 1979, The Nerd focuses on architect Willem Cubbert (an able Brian Vaughn) whose career and love life is going nowhere, literally -– even though he’s feverishly working on a design for hardnosed client Warnock Waldgrave (understudy Donte Fitzgerald) and his girlfriend Tansy McGinnis (a solid Melinda Pfundstein) has designs on him moving with her to Alexandria, Virginia.
Willem is also forever indebted to his hero Rick Steadman for saving his life in Vietnam. While the two have never actually met -– Rick had scooped up the wounded and unconscious Willem and posited him with medics before he came to -- they had maintained contact since the war.
With an outstanding offer from Willem that he would do anything he possibly could for Rick to repay his debt, Rick (Gerard Neugent) comes calling for payback time in the midst of a party that includes Waldgrave and his family, Tansy and friend/resident wiseacre Axel Hammond (Torrey Hanson). While Rick is welcomed with open arms by Willem, he’s quickly revealed as the consummate nerd, complete with requisite clunky black glasses, slicked-back hair, pocket protector and wader pants, along with bad B.O. and odd behavior that would terrify Miss Manners.
Not only does the nerd repulse each of Willem’s guests, but he settles in for the long haul, becoming the guest who would not leave. After the nerd practically ruins Willem’s last best hope for success with his client, the second half of the farce moves into even sillier territory as Willem, Tansy and Axel conspire to rid themselves of the nerd. They hatch a scheme pretending to have bizarre local customs and rituals intended to scare the nerd away. As you might expect, their plot backfires.
Unfortunately, what also backfires is the delivery of key lines. Most disappointing is Hanson as the wisecracking Axel, whose every deadpan should be delivered like a scorching zinger for maximum comic effect. By my count, only about a third of them actually followed their intended trajectories to reach the intended laugh target. It results in Axel coming across as that obnoxious guy at the party who thinks he’s funny, but really isn’t. Too bad.
Fortunately, the very buoyant Neugent plays the titular nerd to perfection and is by far the most hilarious thing about this show. He single-handedly keeps this comedy afloat. Think of him as the white tape that keeps a quintessential nerd’s glasses together. While he’s worth the price of admission, the production sags every time he’s off stage.
This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).
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