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Performing Arts

‘Nerd’ humor

An early-’80s comedy has a hard time translating to the 21st century.

Larry Laneer February 23rd, 2011

The Nerd
8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday Through March 5
Pollard Theatre
120 W. Harrison, Guthrie

It’s hard to say whether the title of “The Nerd,” by Larry Shue, now being presented by Pollard Theatre, is supposed to endear us to the eponymous character or turn us off right from the beginning. I guess it depends on your opinion of nerds, generally.

In this tepid 1981 comedy, Willum Cubbert is a moderately successful architect in Terre Haute, Ind.

He has a girlfriend, a client and a good friend, who happens to be an acerbic, wisecracking, hard-drinking theater critic (no one has a friend like this in real life).

Into Willum’s pleasant, steady, if not particularly exciting, life comes Rick Steadman, an old Army pal who saved Willum’s life in Vietnam. The buddies haven’t seen each other since the war, but they have kept in touch, and Willum feels a lifelong obligation to help Rick anytime he needs anything.

When Rick shows up unexpectedly at Willum’s 34th birthday party, the architect’s patience, generosity and goodwill are tested to the nth degree. For Rick, you see, turns out to be a bow-tie-wearing nerd with toilet paper stuck to his shoe. He’s annoying beyond all get-out, and his antisocial, if benign, behavior drives everyone crazy. He doesn’t like what’s for dinner, so he asks for spaghetti, and after eating one meatball, declares himself full. He gets everyone involved in a silly party game that leaves them sockless and shoeless. After a few days of this houseguest from Hell, Willum is drinking his vodka straight from the bottle.

One thing Rick is not, as played in an energetic performance by Robert Matson, is dull. One wishes the same could be said for the play. Maybe the slapstick humor and cultural references were funnier back in its era, but even that’s questionable. During one scene where the characters engage in that grand old Terre Haute tradition of watching an apple core turn brown, one could not help but think of watching paint dry.

Could director Doobie Potter, whose staging does not appear careless or lacking in thought, have found some relevance or subtext that would give the audience a little bit of humor to grasp onto? It’s doubtful. This is just one of the most tedious comedies to come along in recent memory.

You can’t blame the cast. Craig Pruitt, who was excellent earlier this season in “August: Osage County,” plays Willum, while Timothy Stewart is his theater-critic friend, and Crystal Ecker plays the girlfriend. James A. Hughes is the client, and Dana Poulson plays his neurotic wife.

In the end, “The Nerd” deals with that dubious human endeavor known as the “anonymous favor,” that is, doing what (you think) is best for someone even if he doesn’t know it. This means the play does have a payoff at the end, but it is pretty paltry, and how much of a “favor” is ultimately done for the characters remains unsettled at the play’s unsatisfying conclusion.

With friends like these, who needs more friends?

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