Saturday, March 31, 2007

opening-night review of *The Nerd*

at Spokane Civic Theatre's Main Stage through April 22

Comedy is tough, actors will tell you, and there are a number of reasons that the Civic's *Nerd* isn't as funny as it could be or should be.
Oh, there are bright spots: Brian Lambert's squinting, beaver-tooth obtuseness in the title role and Paul Villabrille's slow-burn exasperation as Willum, the host who feels he simply has to put up with the King of Clueless — along with several sequences of effective silliness.
But director Maria Caprile's production overstays its welcome with slow pacing and the excessive stageyness of actors who are straining to score comic points with the audience (as opposed to acting with and at one another within the parameters of playwright Larry Shue's comedic world — which, admittedly, are sometimes absurd).
Take Chad Hagerty's performance as the prematurely world-weary, wise-cracking best friend, Axel the theater critic. Hagerty often punctuates the action well with his sarcastic one-liners tossed in from the sidelines (though he misses just as often). But Hagerty aims some of his comic riffs — a quick Mary Tyler Moore spoof, a Groucho Marx allusion — out into the darkness where the eavesdroppers are instead of keeping the comic energy up onstage where someone like Jaime Mathis (in the role of Tansy the girlfriend) might be able to use it and react to it. Actors who act toward the audience instead of toward one another create continual reminders that we're not actually witnessing anything that's real. And for Shue's farce to function well, characters with a strong sense of propriety need to be established so that the Nerd can come along, nose-picking and faux pas-ing his way toward whatever's improper.

With this show, however, propriety isn't held that dear. Mathis makes Tansy the kind who's continually traipsing in and out of the kitchen like Mrs. Cleaver, attempting to maintain decorum with smiles (and bayonets) fixed. But since her career beckons more than Willum responds (and because of her unexplained friendship with Willum's best pal, Axel), it's not clear at all that Tansy and Willum value having everything just so. Hence, no comic deflation when Nerd Man comes on the scene.
Willum's business client Warnock "Ticky" Waldgrave (Dave Rideout) and his son Thor (Spencer Lambdin on opening night, though he'll alternate in the role with Hunter Jasper) are sketched from the outset as blowhard and brat. Both Shue's script and this production under-emphasize how big the stakes are for architect Willum during the dinner party that's exploded in Act One by the arrival of that darn guy with the pocket protectors. If we were made to realize just how proper and formal Willum's expectations are, we'd cringe in greater delight over how Rick the Nerd upsets the apple cart of even the simplest social interactions.
Good jokes contain little surprises; there's a reason we say they relieve monotony. But too often in Shue's script, jokes keep getting repeated even after the pattern's clear and the surprise has been revealed. For example, a sequence of second-act shenanigans requires several characters to act in deliberately outrageous ways. But once we've watched inappropriate things being poured into teacups three times, the pattern's established and no longer very funny, even if there's mild interest in just how the next type of deliberately and self-consciously outrageous behavior will arrive. It's like watching parents trying too hard to be silly at a 3-year-old's birthday party: It's mirthless and forced.

Lambert's portrayal of Rick the Nerd, however, does bring on the mirth while avoiding some details of the stereotype. (There aren't really any pocket protectors.) Inflicting on us not one but two pairs of truly horrific plaid pants, and with his shirttail sticking out through his zipper hole, with teeth like an elderly rat's, his eyes scrunched behind horn-rim glasses and a chest that's a concavity, he kicks his heels when delighted with surprises and hangs his head when he meets with disapproval. Lambert's Nerd has a child's perspective on things: "I don't make these rules," he advises, even as everybody around him is flailing about ridiculously in the midst of some ridiculous party game that he himself has instigated. Did he forget that it's his game? Does he have a kid's exaggerated respect for authority? No matter: Lambert makes his Nerd an endearing, child-like creature.

The Civic's *Nerd* has other hightlights too. After intermission, when Willum and his girl and his buddy team up to get Revenge Against the Nerd, they create a lot of funny moments. There was, however, a fair amount of stepping on laugh lines (not letting a sight gag register long enough for the audience to extract a full laugh before the dialogue plunges onward) and of underplaying the sexual tension (when a Willum-Tansy kiss gets interrupted, or when a loaded remark that could affect both their public and private lives is rushed past).
But Shue's script and Caprile's direction both underscored nicely how much selflessness and generosity matter in all our interactions, even the ones with the world's misfits and outcasts and nerds. Lambert projects a nice pleading quality when his feelings are hurt, or when he can't believe that Willum lacks a copy of some central moral teachings. His nerd just doesn't catch the simplest social hints — the ones we all take for granted. It's not until the end, when Rick Steadman reveals a vindictive streak, that our sympathies realign.
By then, more than two and a quarter hours after it started, the Civic's *Nerd* has been traveling for too long on the comedy highway, even if it has dropped several Easter eggs along the way. It's a production with some funny stretches that are undercut by slow pacing and by a failure to establish propriety as the pretty balloon that everyone onstage would like to play with and that the Nerd would just like to puncture.

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