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It’s only infrequently that playwright Larry Shue’s name crops up on the Charlotte theatre scene. The New Orleans native, whose comedies were all premiered at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, died in an airplane crash at the age of 39, while his most familiar work, The Foreigner, was still playing off-Broadway. Charlotte Repertory Theatre staged that backwoods farce during the same year that Shue died, 1985, and it was a huge hit, so huge that when Rep marked its 25th anniversary in 2001, a revival of The Foreigner was part of their celebration. But Shue’s “other” comedy, The Nerd, also figured significantly in Rep’s history. When the company went from a summertime schedule to year-round status in 1988, The Nerd was the company’s first non-summer production. Thirty years later, the current Theatre Charlotte presentation of The Nerd is actually its Charlotte premiere, for Rep staged this wacky comedy at Davidson College.
Wacky might be considered a gracious description of The Nerd, which premiered in Milwaukee two years before The Foreigner and arrived on Broadway two years after its worthier sibling. Silly, over-the-top, and unfocused might be better ways to describe this belated coming-of-age story of young architect Willum Cubbert. We first encounter the low-key Willum as he’s insufficiently surprised by his 28th birthday party. The surprises have hardly begun, for the party is wildly impacted by the unexpected arrival of the title character, Rick Steadman, who retains Willum’s undying gratitude for saving his life in Vietnam. Thanks to other guests, excesses abound before Rick’s bodacious entrance. Not only is Willum’s current client, Warnock Waldgrave, insensitive to the niceties of Willum’s architectural drawings, he comes to the party with a neurotic wife and a fiercely obnoxious daughter. The little brat has thrown two or three tantrums, assaulted her dad and other adults, and locked herself stubbornly in the bathroom on multiple occasions – a sedate warmup compared to the action after Rick arrives. As you might presume, the extremely starchy Warnock and the preternaturally eccentric and irritating Rick are not destined to get along.
Aside from Willum, whose gratitude toward Rick and dependence on Warnock prevent him from taking a hard line, two of Willum’s friends, Axel Hammond and Tansy McGinnis, try to mediate as the party spirals further out of control. Tansy is particularly sympathetic toward Willum. She’s his girlfriend now, but will soon be breaking his heart when she moves from Terre Haute, Indiana, to DC, where she has a job waiting for her as a TV weathergirl. Axel is a drama critic, so he’s more inclined to crack wise than be helpful.
Just when it seems that Willum’s evening can’t get any worse, Rick makes his second entrance, suitcases in hand, intent on moving in. It’s here that Shue begins to misdirect us or lose focus; everyone onstage, except Rick, becomes intently preoccupied with expelling Willum’s noxious visitor. We’re likely to forget that Tansy has really set the agenda early on in a conversation with Axel.
With set and lighting by John P. Woodey, this Theatre Charlotte production has a very sharp and detailed look to it, augmented by Sabrina Blanks’ splendid costume designs. Mom Clelia and daughter Thoralee clash like crazy in their party outfits, and Rick, dogged in insisting that this is a Halloween party, is positively unearthly when he arrives. Directing this mayhem, Jill Bloede has taken a sensible approach, drawing outré performances from her three most noisome players, Trulyn Rhinehardt as the incorrigible Thoralee, Simon Donaghue as a perpetually outraged Warnock, and Jonathan Slaughter as The Nerd.
Rhinehardt misbehaved with such savage zest that I don’t mind saying I most delighted in Thoralee when she fainted from fright. Even if Bloede hadn’t changed Thoralee’s gender – Shue originally saddled Warnock with a Thor – I don’t think that a fainting spell by a bratty boy would have been any more satisfying. Donoghue’s powerful take on Warnock seemed to be the only misguided aspect of Bloede’s approach: why didn’t he go off on his unruly daughter, and why didn’t he simply fire Willum on the spot for ruining his day? Whatever softness accounted for Warnock’s forbearance wasn’t visible.
Slaughter’s way with Rick, not far distant in its absurdity from the sound and awkwardness of the Nutty Professor minted by Jerry Lewis, always bordered precariously on the unbelievable. There were times when Rick seemed to be trying to irritate everyone in sight, exactly the impression of which Shue would have approved. A tad too young to be playing Willum, perhaps, Cole Pedigo was a near-perfect foil for Rick’s nuttiness once he conquered his opening-night jitters. Shue wanted us to see a talented desirable man who is kind, grateful, and accommodating to a fault. That was exactly how we saw Pedigo.
Shue’s women weren’t as well drawn here as they would be in The Foreigner, but Bloede probably could have pushed Allison Kranz as Tansy and Audrey Wells as Clelia further toward farce. They also suffer at the epic birthday party from hell, Tansy especially after she slaves over a custom-made dinner and Clelia most memorably when she quizzes Rick about his love life. Perhaps if Shue had made her more decisive, Tansy would have seemed less vanilla as the would-be weathergirl, so Kranz definitely needed to pick her spots to show us that she was worthy of Willum’s adoration. Mostly, Shue and I forgot about her. Of course, Clelia was as much generic comedy material as her child, but Shue gave her some bravura business to perform in her reactions. Bloede should have lit the fire that would have made these diva moments for Wells. We weren’t as close to Carol Burnett as we should have been.
Deep in the weave of Shue’s plot is Axel, whose scheme to exorcise Rick in Act II is approximately as disastrous as the birthday party was before intermission. Chip Bradley was sufficiently urbane and snarky as this theatre critic, but I sometimes got the impression that he was a late addition to the cast. Along with a few instances of slow cue pickup, Bradley fumbled a few lines before getting them right. I’ve seen him do better in productions just as fast-paced as this one, so I’m expecting better performances in the nights ahead.
Coping with so many moving parts and quirks, Charlotte Rep also had some rough edges in its opening night performance of The Nerd 30 years ago. You wouldn’t want to tame all of this volatile ball of energy, but a little more energy here and a little sharpening there would help Theatre Charlotte’s production to snap into better shape.
The Nerd continues through Sunday, February 11. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.