‘The Nerd’ Falls Flat at Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope

(Photo: Mark Garvin)

By John Dwyer

The rumored last words of Edmund Gwen, who played Santa in the original movie “Miracle on 34th Street,” as he lay in his hospital bed at the Motion Picture Country House in LA, were “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

This proves to be the case with “The Nerd” by Larry Shue at the Bucks County Playhouse. It was first produced in Milwaukee in 1981, transferred to London, and then  ran for 441 performances on Broadway. It was then seen in many regional theaters over the years.  Its appeal is that it is very funny in parts. But its drawback is its lack of cohesiveness if not done just right. And in the U.S. at least, it always seems to get mixed reviews.

It does have a serious theme of where to draw the line between selflessness and selfishness. Dramas such as “A Delicate Balance” and comedies such as “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” have looked at the fine line of where our moral/social obligations to friends begin and end. The Nerd is a comedy that examines this as well with some hilarious results.

It begins, however, with an unduly long amount of exposition. The protagonist, Willum Cubbert, is a professionally and personally unfulfilled human being who is frustrated with where his career is going as an architect and equally frustrated by his girlfriend, Tansy, who is leaving him in Terre Haute, Indiana, to become a weather girl/meteorologist in Washington, DC. It is his birthday and he is having a party thrown by both Tansy and his gay best friend, local drama critic Axel.

Simultaneously, his biggest client, Warnock Waldgrave, is coming over to review a construction project, with his repressed wife and emotionally dysfunctional son in tow. Willum is obviously having an exceptionally stressful day and the phone rings. Up to now, this is where it seems like the comedy is reality based and, if compared to TV fare from the period (note: the playwright was a TV actor), it seems like it could have been written by one of the writers of “Who’s the Boss” or “One Day at a Time.” The person on the other end of the phone is the man who saved his life back when he was in Vietnam, Rick Steadman. Rick is coming by to see him. Rick Steadman was a hero because he found the unconscious Willum on the battlefield and carried him for miles to safety.  When Willum regained consciousness, Rick was gone and he was never able to thank him personally. They have corresponded over the years, and Willum vowed that he virtually is Rick’s brother, and that no matter what, he will do anything — yes anything — for the comrade in arms who saved his life. But here is the problem: Rick Steadman is possibly the most annoying and obnoxious fellow on planet Earth. And it may be, much to Willum’s surprise, that Rick is here to stay.

But now the play has become something else. The script ventures into slapstick and becomes “The Lucy Show” just when you thought you were given a setup with normal characters with real problems to solve.

If you have an actor playing a toned-down Rick, the play continues with focus on the protagonist.  If the actor is more outrageous, the play gets hijacked by the performance of Rick Steadman. In London, Rowan Atkinson played this role, I have read. I am sure it was entertaining, though I have no idea how that fared. I read also that someone attempted, in another production, to do a Jerry Lewis impersonation for the role, with some success. But in the latter attempt, the other players were criticized for being boring and unmemorable. For me, Joe Kinosian as Rick Steadman seemed too cartoonish. The broad, arch acting style that was fine for “Clue” and also for “Murder for Two,” which Mr. Kinosian starred in this last Christmas, is out of place. You can play a nerd, without putting quotation marks all over the performance that you are playing a nerd. Jim Parsons (“Big Bang Theory”) is making a very good living at doing just that. Also, casting wise, I would have chosen someone more with a more stereotypical nerd physique. He is tall and fit, and not what I would visualize for the role.

Kyle Cameron seemed well suited as the erstwhile, hardworking architect Willum Cubbert who allows Rick to take advantage of him. Clea Alsip is appealing, as always, as the girlfriend Tansy. She has done amazing work at the playhouse, appearing previously in ”Steel Magnolias” and “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” Gavin Lee is delightful as the witty and acerbic Axel, who has some of the best lines in the show. Lee has Tony and Olivier Award nominations for originating the role of Bert in Disney’s “Mary Poppins.”

As curmudgeon and patriarch of the Waldgrave family, Grant Shaud was suitably grumpy. Shaud, best known as Miles from “Murphy Brown,” was joined by his flustered wife, Clelia, played with agitated neurotic sweetness by Zuzana Sadowski and his unruly kid Thor played by the angelic faced Avey Noble. There was something missing in the family dynamic, however, and I think there should have been more focus with Thor visually referring back to his mother, who would be trying to control his outbursts.

Marc Vietor, as director, has not been able to orchestrate the different styles and story lines to make the evening a total success. The shift in acting style and focus, to use a period metaphor from its 1979 time frame, is like taking a phonograph needle off one part of a record, and landing on a different song with an entirely different sound. The show continues, but the audience realizes something disconcerting has happened.

The set designer, Maruti Evans, created an unusual design. Instead of realism, the set walls were a blueprint, no doubt symbolizing the unfinished life that Willum was living. It took chances and was out of the box, which I appreciated. But for this particular production, a more conventional set may have served better.

One very positive aspect of the show is a resolution with a surprise at the end that makes the evening finish on a satisfying note. It is totally unexpected and well played.

A couple of asides: The Playhouse has a new sound system that is fabulous. And their website has been updated with a new, simplified ticket ordering system, and tickets are also now available through the Theater Development Fund in New York City.

“The Nerd” runs through July 15. Call (215) 862-2121 for tickets, or visit Bucks County Playhouse online.





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