In the new Sally Sefton-directed production of Larry Shue’s “The Nerd,” a universal question is asked of the audience: how much do we put up with people we don’t like? Whether it’s in line at the grocery store, on a lengthy flight or “entertaining” a new house guest, how far do we go in being polite, attentive listeners and when do we finally cry “Uncle!” and put an end to insufferable company? Shue’s two-act play, while set in the 1980’s, fully puts the audience in the corner of Willum Cubbert, the sweet, long suffering architect played by Dylan Bode. Willum has a devoted girlfriend named Tansy (Laura Lee Cole) and a quick witted best friend named Axel (Kepa Cabanilla-Aricayos) as his support. Indecisive plans regarding Willum’s future are put on hold upon the arrival of Rick Steadman (Chris Rose), Willum’s old friend who has hasn’t seen in years.
Steadman is beyond description- he’s loud, dopey and unceasingly attentive, overly enthusiastic yet boorish, self centered yet clinging to his host like a lost puppy. He’s the kind of guy who can suck the energy out of the room and, if given just a few minutes, can rub everyone present the wrong way. With the arrival of Willum’s client, Warnock (Anthony James Rummel), his smiling-but-had-it-up-to-here wife Clelia (Marsi Smith) and their unruly son, Thor (Caleb Ramon Munar Chargualaf), an awkward evening (which Steadman monopolizes) grows increasingly worse in hysterical, surreal ways.
Willum could come across as either a hopeless wimp or an uptight, Felix Ungar-like snob. Bode does something even better- he fully emerges himself into the role, making Willum recognizably vulnerable, driven and fatally eager to please. He’s an excellent host and that’s the problem. Bode’s performance is so good, the play couldn’t work as well without him. Shue’s theme of social niceties and questioning how far we go to be “good hosts” rests on Willum’s shoulders. Even in the late going, when the role becomes farcical, Bode always made me believe in and root for Willum.
Rose’s performance is simply spectacular. Sporting a thick “Wisconsin accent” and providing line readings that always sound off the cuff and made up on the spot, Rose’s work is pleasingly strange. Its Rose’s understanding and innate sympathy for the character that gives his performance a surprisingly tender layer. Steadman, even at his most boorish, is loveable, due to how cleverly Rose plays him. For better or worse, Steadman is always the most honest person in the room.
Cabanilla-Aricayos brings razor sharp comic timing to his role as Willum’s best friend and steals more than a few scenes. Likewise, Cole makes Tansy relatable, compelling and adorable. We understand why Tansy is sticking with Willum and witness the lengths she’s willing to go, both in her affection for him and in putting up with Willum’s increasingly outrageous behavior. Rummel and Smith do something special with their characters: rather than simply play a slow burn or the easy butt of the jokes, they make their bizarre couple surprisingly sympathetic, even touching. The indignities they both suffer are funny but I found myself caring about them, even when they had paper bags over their heads. Chargualaf is a riot, tearing up the stage as the embodiment of the ultimate spoiled brat. Steadman’s hilarious stream of conscious dialog and Willum’s relentless patience with his guest are the focus but its Chargualaf’s portrayal of Thor’s wild tantrums that threaten to steal the whole show outright.
The audience frequently exploded with laughter throughout the first and second act. This is one of those tight, cleverly rendered comedies that begins well, establishes an amusing premise and piles on heaps of laughter. Sally Sefton’s direction brings out the best in her cast and keeps the farce moving at a steady but never frantic pace.
My experience of seeing “The Nerd” at the ProArts Playhouse was my first time in the theater and won’t be my last. This is a cozy, roomy theater that accommodates a large audience but feels utterly intimate. Comedies are notoriously hard to pull off in live theater but this production nails the crazed nuances of Shue’s work. “The Nerd” is charming, enormously funny and un-missable. I haven’t laughed this hard in a long time.
The Nerd opens April 15th and runs at the ProArts Playhouse at the Azeka Shopping Center until May 1st. Tickets can be purchased at www.proartspacific.com or by calling 463-6550.