THE NERDby Larry Shue
Directed by Steven D. Morris
Set Design – Tony Curtis
Lighting Design – Bryan Stevenson
Assistant Director/Costume Design – Diana Story
Sound Design – Zachary R. Briscoe
Properties Design – Melanie Mason
Axel Hammond – Matt Adams
Willum Cubbert – Michael Alger
Tansy McGinnis – Jenna Anderson
Rick Steadman – Jerry Downey
Warnock Waldgrave – Robert Michael James
Thor Waldgrave – Wesley Jones
Clelia Waldgrave – Laura Saladino
All Photos by Eric Younkin Photography
Reviewed Performance: 8/8/2014
Reviewed by Rachel Elizabeth Khoriander, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
During his short career, Shue worked in repertory theatre on the New York stage, and in television and film. He was most connected with Milwaukee Repertory Theater where, in the early 1980s he wrote both The Nerd and The Foreigner as their playwright-in-residence. The Nerd premiered in Milwaukee in 1981 with Shue in the role of Willum. In 1985, he had begun work on a screenplay of The Foreigner for Walt Disney Studios and was scheduled to make his Broadway debut as Rev. Mr. Cisparkle in Joseph Papp's The Mystery of Edwin Drood when he was killed in a commuter plane accident on his way home to Virginia.
At the time of Shue's death, The Nerd, had finished a successful run in London and was touring England. In 1986, it was the top grossing play in London's West End, and transferred to Broadway in 1987 where it ran for 441 performances.
Set in Terre Haute, Indiana in the late 1970s, The Nerd tells the story of timid architect Willum Cubbert, his romantic interest Tansy, and their close friend Axel. Willum receives an unexpected and soon seemingly permanent house-guest in the form of Rick Steadman, the man who saved Willum's life while they were fighting in the Vietnam War. All hell breaks loose as one rollicking incident is replaced by another in an ever-expanding attempt to extricate Willum from his hilarious dilemma.
In Theatre Arlington’s current production, Michael Alger plays Willum Cubbert with a sense of quiet submission. Early in the play, Alger's pained expression, occasional sigh and slightly downtrodden posture are the only signs that anything disturbs Willum's perpetually Milquetoast existence. As the plot develops, however, Alger uses increasingly energetic movement, occasional loss of control, and eventual murderous eye-glint to hint that Willum's passivity is beginning to crumble. Alger handles the imperceptible transformation subtly, molding from the stereotypical “nice guy who finishes last” a resolute man of action.
This transformation comes as a pleasant surprise to his love interest, Tansy McGinnis, played by Jenna Anderson. Similar to Willum, Anderson's Tansy subtly shifts throughout the play. Her delivery and carriage display Tansy’s desire to please as do the perplexed facial expressions Anderson exhibits as her character enacts a resigned acceptance of Willum's guests' peculiarities. Most likely to be considered the “straight person” at the beginning of the farce, Anderson throws away all restraint in the second act and has some unexpectedly and absurdly amusing moments therein.
Of all the roles in The Nerd, that of Axel Hammond would be the most fun to play. Rife with caustic one-liners and intentional misunderstandings, Axel requires an actor with impeccable comedic timing and dry delivery. Matt Adams certainly fulfills both equally well. There were a few times when the extended length of the opening night audience's laughter seemed to surprise him, but Adams' timing was superb. Of particular note is the character choice for Axel. I have often seen the character played as a hard-nosed, jaded, cynical womanizer, but here Adams plays him as more bemused, fastidious, hedonistic, and slightly effeminate. I’ll admit it took a moment for the mental image of Axel to shift, but once it did, the result was delightful. Adams' warmth and effusiveness shine through this characterization, and one finds it easy to embrace this more lovable, less spiky version of the role I've come to love.
Jerry Downey's characterization of Rick Steadman is similarly unexpected. Prior to this performance, I had seen him as purely obtuse and buffoonish, but while Downey's Steadman is often amusing and maddeningly slow-witted, he is often also slightly threatening. Besides the normal frustration Willum experiences when dealing with this highly imbecilic house-guest, he also experiences discomfort and even a tiny bit of fear when faced with Downey's brand of scowling, confrontational disagreeableness. Downey's Rick is quick to take offense, then becomes red-faced and hunches as though building forward momentum so that he can spring at anyone who doesn't quickly remedy the problem. Downey is slightly menacing in his role as Rick which slightly detracts from the humor, causing ripples in his comedic timing, but his interpretation also adds depth and realism to a script that otherwise often borders on the absurd.
Robert Michael James is pleasing as Warnock Waldgrave and he too adds some real depth to a character that is often played as a bully. James' flustered mannerisms, sudden outbursts of anger and frequent jerky movements indicate Waldgrave is on edge and potentially close to a nervous breakdown. James' in the moment focus is unparalleled and adds power and a sense of purpose to his performance.
Laura Saladino, as Clelia Waldgrave, expresses a similar nervousness with her hunched posture, small tense movements and darting eyes. Saladino’s anxious energy, which must be exhausting to maintain throughout the entire performance, and her truly comical reactions to the family members and Rick make Clelia a wonderfully funny character .
Rounding out the Waldgrave clan is son, Thor, played by Wesley Jones. Jones portrays Thor as less of an enfant terrible than a reactive and highly-strung child reacting to his parents' quirks. This adds some further realism to the storyline (for the first time ever, I actually felt a little sorry for Thor), but it also takes away from the farcical nature of the play. Still, Jones' boredom and terror is realistic, and he does a fine job of playing dead and reacting to surrounding dialogue. A moment involving his showdown with a costume head is particularly memorable.
Tony Curtis’ set is well-designed, providing a number of independent spaces that allow activity and conversation to flow easily between characters so as to smoothly advance the plot. Furnishings appear to blend characteristics of Willum, Tansy and Axel, further cementing their friendship and indicating they spend a good deal of time together. The lines and angles of the room support Willum's architectural background, as do the architectural objects and textures used throughout. Perhaps, most intriguingly, Curtis seems to have channeled Frank Lloyd Wright, bringing nature indoors with carefully placed and shaped houseplants and through a view of mountains that serves as background. I do have one point of contention here - the last time I visited Terre Haute I saw some rolling hills but nothing close to the enviously mountainous topography depicted in the backdrop, but the overall look is so effective it really doesn't matter.
Lighting is complementary to each scene and supports the ambiance of the set, particularly when the cool colors of the outdoors contrast with the warmer indoor lighting. Otherwise, lighting is relatively simplistic but functional. Costuming is astutely designed by designer Diana Story. The characters’ clothing fits their personalities like second skins and is also era appropriate without becoming a stereotype of the 70’s. More interesting, the costuming subtly implies undercurrents rippling through the action on stage. Specifically, the way in which Story uses Willum and Tansy's garb to reflect the state of their relationship is masterful. In the beginning, their clothing is both complementary in color and equally vibrant but the styles seem a bit at odds with one another; Tansy's dress is more metropolitan with its cut-out back and slim shape, whereas Willum dons a more traditional and conservative argyle sweater. By the second act their styles meet somewhere between classic and modern, and they sport accessories that now match one another. This is subtle but the effect implies the two are more of a viable couple than they are at the outset.
Zachary R. Briscoe’s sound design is also subtle. I find sound is generally doing its job when it goes unnoticed which is certainly true with the production. The actors are easily heard and understood and there were no constant technical blunders to distract from the action on stage. Sound effects timing were generally accurate (one minor mistake was expertly covered by actor improvisation) which is impressive given that quite a few humorous moments are created through carefully-timed effects.
Overall, Theatre Arlington’s The Nerd is satisfying and boasts solid acting from players who have good onstage chemistry and playful energy, a twist ending, and many laughs. Though, as noted earlier, some actors’ comedic timing is slightly off, a little more experience with a full audience is all that’s needed for them to be perfectly polished. In short, The Nerd still holds its place in my heart as one of the most enjoyable and diverting plays I have ever come across.
305 W. Main Street
Arlington, Texas 76010
Runs through August 24th
Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday-Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Sunday at 2:00 pm
Tickets are $22.00 and $20.00 for students/seniors. If available, student rush tickets are only $5.00 with ID at five minutes before curtain.
For information and to purchase tickets, go to http://www.theatrearlington.org/ or call the box office at 1-817-275-7661or Metro 817-261-9628.