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  • October 25, 2014

Fine Acting Trumps Bad Writing in 'The Nerd': Theater Review - Ladue News: Arts & Entertainment

Fine Acting Trumps Bad Writing in 'The Nerd': Theater Review

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Posted: Tuesday, May 6, 2014 11:14 am | Updated: 11:23 am, Tue May 6, 2014.

Story: Willum is in a quandary. The Terre Haute architect is working on a couple of projects that, to his exasperation, have been seriously diluted by his clients. Additionally, his patient girlfriend Tansy is set to move to Washington, D.C. to accept a job as a TV meteorologist.

While Willum, Tansy and their close friend, newspaper drama critic Axel, prepare to celebrate one of their few remaining dinners together, Willum mentions that the man who saved his life when he was stationed in Vietnam is coming to pay a visit. That’s big news, since Willum has never actually seen Rick Steadman, as Willum had blacked out from a combat injury prior to his rescue and was then flown back to the States.

Now, years later, he’s heard from Rick, who is coming to town from Wisconsin. Once he arrives, all theories about Rick are quickly dashed. He’s inept, inappropriate, nerdy, needy and obnoxious. He insults Willum’s client, Warnuck Waldgrave, who has stopped by Willum’s home with his wife and son to discuss a business matter. Worst of all, Rick says he plans to stay for a long, long time.

Highlights: Actor/playwright Larry Shue wrote just a few plays in his short life before he died in a plane crash in 1985. One of his efforts, The Foreigner, is a clever farce that continues to be produced by professional and community theaters.

Another of his works, The Nerd, also enjoys continued popularity. Written in 1981, two years before he penned The Foreigner, The Nerd has similar plot construction and also features a rather large cast engaged in hijinks and misinformation. The current presentation at Dramatic License Productions shows what a solid cast can do with less than stellar material, providing sufficient laughs to offset the weak script.

Other Info: The best that can be said about The Nerd is that Shue apparently learned what not to do with a comedy, and took that lesson with him when he wrote The Foreigner, a far superior work.

What can one note about The Nerd? One could say that it is stupid, inane and inept to the point of being wearisome. It’s also offensive in one particularly unfunny remark by Rick about the girl to whom he once proposed. If that’s humor, this must be Terre Haute.

That’s another point of incredulity. Apparently, Terre Haute’s artistic community is flourishing to the point where the local newspaper has its own theater critic (although, in fairness, it’s not determined that reviewing is Axel’s only journalistic responsibility). Hey, he even dresses in a tux to attend premieres.

Rick also is your stereotypical, bargain-basement nerd, arriving with thick glasses taped in the middle, an array of writing instruments in his shirt pocket and pants left over from the last flood that reveal mismatched socks. It is sooo funny.

So, what does an accomplished director such as John Contini do with such drivel? Well, he judiciously fills the cast with expert performers who know how to deliver lines, albeit boorish ones, with flair, finesse and a panache that demonstrates how talented folks can do a lot with a little.

B. Weller, e.g., would fit nicely into any witty, cerebral Noel Coward comedy of manners with his droll, delicious delivery. Whether he has the best lines, or simply makes it sound so with his sardonic style, the result greatly benefits this rendition.

Jason Contini and Taylor Pietz possess an easy chemistry that makes their characters, Willum and Tansy, all the more enjoyable to watch. Both performers play off their counterparts with precise timing and appealing likability that has you rooting for them throughout.

John Reidy and Nicole Angeli are entertaining as Willum’s pompous client and his mousy wife. Angeli wonderfully captures the pent-up frustration of Clelia Waldgrave in a bit where she deliberately breaks tableware, while Reidy is very funny in his stiff role, especially when soaked or covered in food.

Young Hayden Benbenek is saddled with the part of the Waldgrave’s ill-behaved son, Thor. If you think naming a lad Thor is amusing, you may enjoy Thor’s temper tantrums.

As for the title role, Mike Wells actually is quite good portraying an irritating, socially unacceptable nothing. Wells is fitfully funny when he’s attempting to get comfortable on Willum’s couch or when he’s leading the other characters into a game that goes nowhere. He helps make lemonade out of this lemon of a script.

John Contini’s smooth, steady pacing enables his players to extract what humor they can from the forced dialogue and situations, making the evening as palatable as possible.

Kyra Bishop’s scenic design nicely delineates a Midwestern architect’s bachelor pad, lit by Max Parrilla. Lisa Hazelhorst’s costumes aside from the title character fit the early ‘80s setting, and Peggy Knock provides the props that set up sundry wacky situations in Willum’s living room.

If you want to see how accomplished theatrical artists hone their craft, check out The Nerd. If you’re in the mood for witty writing, stick with The Foreigner.

Play: The Nerd

Company: Dramatic License Productions

Venue: Dramatic License Theatre, upper level, Chesterfield Mall

Dates: May 9, 10, 11,16, 17, 18

Tickets: $18-$25; contact 636-821-1746 or www.DramaticLicenseProductions.org

Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of John Lamb

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