Arlington — Reciprocity borne from a sense of moral obligation is noble and good. If a person saves your life, an offer to do absolutely anything for them in return seems reasonable. But, what if “anything” soon makes you regret that promise? This is the situation in Theatre Arlington’s delightfully zany production of Larry Shue’s The Nerd.
Willum Cubbert (Michael Alger) is a bit of a sad sack. It’s his 34th birthday, he’s being audited, and his job as an architect is being unduly criticized by his current client, Warnock Waldgrave (Robert Michael James). So, when he gets a message on his answering machine—this is set in the 80’s—from the man who saved his life in Vietnam saying he’s coming to town to visit, Willum is excited. It’s worth noting that Willum never actually met this man as he’d been unconscious when he was saved and only ever corresponded via letter.
The play’s title character is actually a man named Rick Steadman (Jerry Downey). He is a classic nerd stereotype, sporting glasses, a short sleeve white button down with black tie, and black pants. He speaks in an annoyingly nasal voice. However, Willum is not the type of man who would pass judgments on another person based solely on their fashion sense and vocal qualities. What becomes an annoyance to Willum, which serves as the central arc to this sitcom-like play, is that Rick is also absurdly annoying. At Willum’s birthday party, he torpedoes all the activities, endlessly practices the tambourine, and sabotages Willum’s hotel project, thus angering Waldgrave. He is human dynamite, blowing up everything in his vicinity.
This is a comedy, so obviously the ending is happy. But, Shue finds a particularly clever way to end the show that somehow redeems everyone appropriately. That said, writing anything else about the ending is impossible without spoiling it, so there’s definitely added incentive to see it.
Something Shue struggles with is his balance of straight and comedic characters. Willum and his will-they-won’t-they friend Tansy (Jenna Anderson), along with Waldgrave’s wife Clelia (Laura Saladino), are often the bystanders amidst all the madcap action. As a result, they are somewhat flat. Even when Shue pulls them more into the fracas in Act II, their hesitation to fully let loose is palpable. Alger and Anderson are fine, but unremarkable. Even when Anderson gets a little too obvious about implying her interest in Willum, it comes off as more awkward than alluring. That’s not necessarily Anderson’s fault. Having seen this play several times, it always turns out this way. It’s Shue’s writing. Anderson tries to spice Tansy up, but Tansy is just kind of boring. She and Willum are perfect together because they’re both just bland to the point that their attempts to step out of the vanilla morass of their lives garner more sympathetic laughs than actual amusement.
On the other side, Steadman and Waldgrave are two of the most fun characters ever put to page. Audience members won’t be able to shake the thought of a Rick and Warnock spin-off series. It would be called Ricky and Ticky—Waldgrave’s nickname—and it would be the funniest play or TV show ever produced. Individually, they’re funny. Together, it’s side-splitting. And this is where director Steven D. Morris hit a home run. Both Downey and James are perfect. They’re characters without being caricatures. Again, without spoiling anything, Downey’s performance is validated by the ending. James, on the other hand, adopts an extreme version of angry boss that somehow plays perfectly in the screwball atmosphere of the play.
The Nerd pushes the antics to the brink of sanity. It takes full devotion to the craziness to deliver on its inherent hilarity. This production succeeds on the backs of those who are willing to push that envelope and make life a living hell for others. The theatrical embodiment of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
But, you know, in a fun schadenfreude way.