For all that popular culture satirizes nerds, they are still a likable group. Although they are ostracized, their place in society is more secure than other fringe cultures. Both mocked and feared, most accounts are ultimately sympathetic and advocate their vindication. But Larry Shue's The Nerd is an exception. The play's nemesis terrorizes the characters for two acts. (I was about ready to round up a posse from the audience and bind and gag him.) As a comedy of manners, The Nerd show-cases various quirks and idiosyncrasies possessed by different classes. Everyone is weird, the play seems to say. Well, yes, but not everyone exaggerates their weirdness and flings it in others' faces.
In the opening scene, the gentility of Willum Cubbert's (Colin Stokes) life is established. He runs with a geriatric set, Axl (Michael Schur) and Tansy (Marit Haahr), who jokingly refer to their crustiness between cocktails. So perfect are Axl and Tansy's sentences that they practically speak in rhyming couplets. Their straightlaced and ordinary lives need shaking up; on this day, Willum's birthday, they get what they need.
From the moment Willum walks in the door, his only concerns are figuring out how to get in Tansy's pants and how to design a building for a client. But after he settles down, the arriving guests quicken the pace. While the first act seems to flow from quip to quip, the second act is hurried: the clipped delivery leads the characters to overcompensate by projecting their voices rather than their wits. Had the characters been edgier, The Nerd could have suggested the macabre tones of "Neighbors" or an episode of "The Twilight Zone," but the play is strictly PG-13.
First, Willum's client, Tiki (Ed Upton) appears with his wife, Clelia (Kate deLima) and son, Thor (Doug Miller). Together, they comprise a paradigm for a dysfunctional family. As a couple, Tiki and Clelia are meticulously clad in brown clothes to emphasize that the are the curmudgeon's curmudgeons. Upton's Tiki speaks with a stiff upper lip and in a controlled baritone. His impressive range allows him to play convincingly a much older character.
As his distressed wife, deLima's Clelia is a hilarious mix of misguided energy. When their domestic squabbles erupt, Clelia satisfies her frustration with a fetish for breaking plates wrapped in napkins.
Unsurprisingly, their offspring Thor is emotionally fucked. He is a troublemaker who is prone to hiding in rooms and creating havoc. Miller flails himself about the stage with great delight. His jarring screams keep the crazy pace going even when there's a dry point in the script.
Finally, the real Nerd shows up in the form of one Rick Steadman (Daren Firestone). Willum invites him to his house because Steadman saved his life in Vietnam (shades of goody-goody Forrest Gump). Steadman's entrance is suspenseful because he wears a costume to conceal his identity. Tripping from one faux paux to the next and yet utterly naive about it, Steadman is the stereotypical nerd, but more abrasive, more annoying and goonier. He's a nerd's wet dream. Firestone sounds like Pee-Wee Herman with emphysema.
Throughout all of this chaos, it is Willum's playhouse that is invaded. As a set designed like an Intimist painting, it's an apt pressure cooker--a fine place to have a nervous breakdown. Stokes shows two sides of Willum: one is calm, as in the scene where he delivers a story laying on the floor and looking dreamy; the other one is much more neurotic, shoulders heavy with burden, sweating, panting, and turning more and more pale with each new conundrum. Throughout most of the play, Stokes leans towards the latter disposition, letting on that while he may seem more normal than the other characters he has still been reduced to a neurotic mess by all the freaky incidents. His is a likable protagonist, though, because he is perseverant.
For all its fast-paced hoopla, The Nerd is long on physical humor but short on substance. Although it by no means aims at social commentary and instead just wants to have fun, more parallels could have been made to emphasize women's roles during these infantile acts. Director Jeremy Dauber has three worlds to contend with--Axl and Tansy, the Tiki crew, and Steadman--but in balancing their neuroses, he fails to flesh out their personalities fully. More subtle differences between gender and social class need to be incorporated into the characters' demeanor so that there can be more tension brooding before it explodes. Some of the figures are more exaggerated than need be, while others are so quiet and reserved that their presence isn't felt.
The tacked-on ending seems like an easy way out of the spiral of commotion that the events build up to. It's as if Shue finally agreed to consent and said, "Enough!" But the abrupt change reads more like an easy way out of a fine mess. As the grand finale approaches, all of the characters are running around the room, slopping food on each other, and singing. Their ruckus is ingratiating in small spurts but after a while it becomes annoying theater. Like dupes, they try to mimic the Nerd in the hopes that he'll be repulsed and leave. Ultimately, their antics look more silly and pathetic.
After this noise comes a happy epilogue, meant to be a treat but leaving more of a distaste than fulfillment because it seems wildly improbable. But by this time, the curtain rises and everyone's taking a bow.