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The Nerd
by Larry Shue
Directed by John Contini
Dramatic License Productions

May 2, 2014

Jason Contini, Taylor Pietz, B. Weller Photo by John Lamb Dramatic License Productions

Jason Contini, Taylor Pietz, B. Weller
Photo by John Lamb
Dramatic License Productions

Sometimes comedy is just comedy.  It doesn’t have to have any deep meaning or sharp social commentary, although some comedies do. Comedies can be complex or simple, as deep as a canyon or as light as a feather. Regardless of tone, however, the ultimate purpose of a comic play is to make its audience laugh, and Larry Shue’s outrageous and fast-moving The Nerd does that, and does it well.  One of two popular and hilarious comedies that serve as the late and gifted Shue’s artistic legacy (the other being The Foreigner), The Nerd is full of broad humor, strong performances and sharply paced action.  This latest production from Dramatic License Productions, performed in their converted storefront space in Chesterfield Mall, provides all the expected laughs and then some.

The plot is relatively simple, set in 1980s Terre Haute, Indiana and revolving around mild-mannered architect Willum Cubbert (Jason Contini), who is preparing to celebrate his 34th birthday, assisted by his semi-serious girlfriend Tansy (Taylor Pietz) and their best friend, acerbic theatre critic Axel (B. Weller).  Willum’s life is comfortable, if not especially fulfilling as he deals with Tansy’s plans to move out of town for a job, and working on a lucrative-but-frustrating job designing a hotel for a particularly demanding boss, Warnock “Ticky” Waldgrave (John Reidy), who has been invited to Willum’s birthday party along with his nervous wife (Nicole Angeli) and unruly young son (Hayden Benbenek).  The birthday plans, and Willum’s life in general, are disrupted in spectacular fashion with the arrival of Rick Steadman (Mike Wells), who is credited with saving Willum’s life years before when both were serving in the Army in Vietnam.  Rick is unusual, to say the least, with an off-the-chart degree of social awkwardness and distracting habits like practicing his tambourine at all hours, making  the birthday guests uncomfortable with his strange stories and unusual party games, and completely imposing on Willum’s good manners and hospitality by moving in and basically taking over Willum’s life.  Confronted with the dilemma of how to get rid of Rick without hurting his feelings, Willum is forced to examine his life in various areas and ultimately make a choice between living according to his own convictions or living primarily to please those around him.

Although this isn’t a particularly deep play and it majors on outrageous characterization rather than intricate plotting, it is reasonably well-structured, with efficient use of foreshadowing as well as some clever jokes about theatre critics that I found especially ironic, being there to review the show myself.  Shue has done a good job of placing a few hints to the play’s somewhat surprising conclusion throughout the script, as well, and director John Contini and the excellent cast have managed to keep up the pacing and deliver all the jokes with utmost outrageous effect. The detailed and characterful set by Kyra Bishop and the well-suited costumes by Lisa Hazelhorst (particularly Rick’s goofy getup), along with the great use of some old standard songs before and during the show, helps to set and maintain the whimsical atmosphere.

The casting is excellent across the board, although the focus of the play is on Jason Contini’s determined nice-guy Willum, Weller’s charmingly snarky Axel, and Wells’s magnetically infuriating Rick. Contini plays the exasperated “everyman” role proficiently, while the increasingly wacky Wells commands the stage with geeky gusto, and Weller quietly steals several scenes with his precisely delivered witticisms and perfectly controlled curmudgeonly charm.  These three carry most of the action while the rest of the players lend strong support.  Pietz in particular plays well alongside Contini and Weller, and Reidy as the stuffy Waldgrave, Angeli as his high-strung wife have some great moments, as well, with young Benbenek displaying some strong slapstick abilities as the Waldgraves’ initially bratty and increasingly terrified son, Thor.

The Nerd is another good example of the quality work that can be found in theatre companies all around the St. Louis area. I’ve noticed that there seems to be an inherent reluctance among those who live in the city (myself included) toward making the long trek to Chesterfield because the city already has a lot to offer in terms of arts, restaurants and nightlife, and a theatre company based in a mall does sound kind of strange at first. Still, the professional atmosphere and overall quality of the productions at Dramatic License, and this current production in particular, makes the trip very much worth the extra effort.

John Reidy, Nicole Angeli, Mike Wells, Jason Contini Photo by John Lamb Dramatic License Productions

John Reidy, Nicole Angeli, Mike Wells, Jason Contini
Photo by John Lamb
Dramatic License Productions

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