February 10, 2006
Maybe too nerdy
By David Ollington
Playwright Larry Shue created two popular, farcical, and often-produced comedies, The Nerd (1981) and The Foreigner (1983). Both achieved remarkable acclaim in the late 1980s and 1990s, and show potential to become classics of American humor.
The American Heartland Theatre has effectively and competently produced The Nerd, running until Feb. 26. Shue’s creative plot provocatively surprises and includes both witty word play and the opportunity for physical comedy. The ensemble of actors — tried and true Kansas City talent — delivers with a reliably slick professionalism. However, they miss the energy — the extra sparkle that would make Shue’s brilliant creation soar.
An architect named Willum Cubbert (Craig Benton) spends a great deal of time with two best friends, girlfriend Tansy (Jennifer Mays) and gay pal Axel (Ron Megee). An old Army buddy of Willum’s, Rick Steadman (Ken Remmert) makes an unexpected visit. Willum feels impelled to unconditionally welcome Rick because Rick saved Willum’s life in Vietnam. Rick’s arrival disrupts an important dinner party with Willum, Tansy, Axel and a powerful, important client of Willum’s, Warnock Waldgrave (Kip Niven).
Remmert as Rick possesses all the stereotypes that clearly designate him as the title role. The waist of his plaid pants hang somewhere around his floating ribs. His hair points into the space around his head, despite an obviously large amount of hair grease. He views the world through black, horn-rimmed glasses and somehow still has to squint.
Rick moves in with Willum, uninvited, and proceeds to infuriate and frustrate the haggard architect. With an appropriately farcical codependence, Willum can’t put his foot down and demand Rick’s departure; Rick saved his life. So Axel and Tansy help Willum devise deception to drive Rick away. They behave as if they belong to a culture so alienating that Rick might leave in discomfort. They serve strange food, devise a fictional festival, and do bizarre dances, all of which Rick accepts unquestioningly, adding to Willum’s frustration.
Shue frames the play with Willum’s relationship with Tansy. She announces early on that she’s been offered a job as a weather girl at a TV station in Washington, DC. Her departure suggests a breakup with Willum, and although so much of the play centers around Rick’s obnoxious behavior, Shue succinctly returns the action to the status of the relationship. A cleanly crafted surprise ending further connects us to the lovers.
Director Mark Ciglar perhaps fell short of challenging the actors out of their comfort zone, casting each participant in roles too perfectly suited for them.
Remmert plays endearingly with the many quirks of the title role. His speaks with a torturously nasal voice and adjusts his underwear with appropriate timing. Remmert’s nerdy creation, though, not only lacks social decorum and common sense, his Rick also fails to strike a deeper chord. A realistic sensitivity, a glimpse into the soul that created this interactive monstrosity, could have conceivably served the humor of the show.
Benton plays, again, the average Joe, the guy next door, the normal American man. He’s perfectly suited for the part, decidedly normal, and dynamically beige.
Jennifer Mays as Tansy is devoted and beautiful. The light timbre of her voice and the character’s deceptive antics cause her to resemble Mary Tyler Moore as Laura Petrie in The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Del Unruh’s set includes a corner sofa that sits at the end of a raised platform, offering the actors ample opportunity to use the couch with creative physicality, kneeling from above, falling or ending inappropriately in a lap.
Uruh included a large window outside the front door of the apartment. Through it, we see a staircase so it appears that visitors descend when they arrive. However, in Act II, Axel tosses a pot full of water and cottage cheese (one of the fabricated foods) out the window, below the stairs. It accidentally hits Warnock, as if visitors arrive from below and the staircase should ascend to the front door. Is this an M.C. Escher world where water falls up?
The actors animate The Nerd with a competent professionalism. They execute the physical antics with obvious rehearsal. The timing of the jokes shows thoughtful preparation. The audience chuckles politely, but Shue designed his play so that the viewer should cry with laughter, roar.
The American Heartland Theatre habitually lists on their posters review quotes, not of their production, but of other, previous productions of their current show. The Nerd’s poster reads, “The audience almost never stops laughing,” from Variety. In the Heartland production, the audience manages rather often to stop laughing.
Still, the American Heartland Theatre successfully maintains a competent standard even if the production doesn’t always shine artistically. Hard work went into The Nerd, but this production, though perfect on the surface, breathes inadequate life into Shue’s masterpiece.
The Nerd runs through Feb. 26 at the American Heartland Theatre in Crown Center. Call 816-842-9999 or visit www.ahtkc.com. The Heartland’s next production will be Married Alive! which will run from March 3 through April 6.
David Ollington can be contacted at Ollington@aol.com.
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