Most theatergoers don’t want to see anything too challenging in the summertime. If you’re looking for that kind of amusement, you’ll find it aboard the Showboat Majestic where the current production is Larry Shue’s The Nerd.
There’s nothing groundbreaking in this sitcom-styled script about Willum, a guy who’s visited by someone he’s been eternally gratefully to for saving his life during the Vietnam War. When Rick Steadman, “the nerd,” shows up on Willum’s doorstep, he’s totally weird and obnoxious, the houseguest from hell, but Willum lacks the spine to speak up. Before long Rick has totally disrupted Willum’s life, undermined his lucrative architectural assignment and simply turned everything upside down.
The Nerd has a few twists and turns that will turn you upside down once or twice before the evening is over — with some genuine laughter along the way. But this is far from a perfect production: The cast is uneven and the staging really suffers from the Showboat’s cramped, postage-stamp stage. But thanks to an inspired comic performance by Chris Stewart as Rick Steadman, the show has moments of hilarity. I especially laughed at the crazy party game he invents, “Shoes & Socks,” which turns a bunch of normal, everyday people into crazed, howling maniacs with paper bags over their heads, blundering around a tiny apartment. You have to be there to get the full effect, but, trust me, you’ll be laughing as the oddball keeps adding more ridiculous rules and stipulations to the exercise.
I wish the Showboat cast was a bit more integrated into an ensemble: Randy A. King, as Willum, whose life is shredded by Rick’s arrival, plays at a lower, more deliberate level than his comic colleagues. That’s fitting because he’s the butt of much of the humor, but because the action revolves around him, things slow down when he’s the pivot.
Willum’s arrogant theater critic friend, Axel, is played by Chuck Haungs in a manner that seems too sophisticated for Terre Haute, Ind. Jessica Rothert as Tansy, Willum’s tentative love interest, evinces not a shred of chemistry with the “nice guy,” although she keeps showing up in his life despite protesting that she wants to move on. Waldgrave, Willum’s blustery client and his odd family (Jeff Hartman, Laura Holland, Nicholas Holland) are one-dimensional — amusing at first but not all that interesting as their jokes are repeated.
Shue’s cleverly plotted comedy and dialogue full of groan-inducing puns was a hit 30 years ago. But The Nerd has many obsolete comic elements such as an answering machine and cultural references meaningless to contemporary audiences. (For instance, do you remember actress Marjorie Main? She’s the source of several jokes that missed the mark if you don’t recall her as “Ma Kettle” in films in the 1940s and ’50s.)
The Showboat finishes its season next month with a production of Thoroughly Modern Millie. The recently announced 2011 season will include the musical Li’l Abner; Neil Simon’s God’s Favorite; the musical 42nd Street; a humorous mystery, The Art of Murder; and the charming musical about awkward teens, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
Another season of safe, entertaining choices, perhaps a bit old-fashioned — a lot like The Nerd.
THE NERD, presented by Cincinnati Landmark Productions on the Showboat Majestic, continues through Aug. 22. Go here for showtimes and ticket information.