Last night, I went to the theater and laughed until my stomach hurt as I watched grown adults put paper bags over their heads. No, I am not seven years old; I am a thoroughly entertained theater connoisseur who left the F. Scott Fitzgerald theater wearing a smile after seeing The Nerd.
This comedy, written by the late Larry Shue (The Foreigner), and crisply directed by Shue’s former student Laura Andruski (A Flea in her Ear), centers around Willum Cubbert (Chris Penick), an architect who appears to have it all – a successful career, steady girlfriend, and good friends who want to help him celebrate his 34th birthday. So why isn’t this man happy? Come to find out, Willum has become a bit of a yes man, afraid to challenge others in work and love. His chronic passivity is put to the test when he gets a call from Rick Steadman (Noah Steurer), the stranger who saved his life in Vietnam. When Rick shows up at his apartment on the night of his birthday party, Willum is thrilled at the prospect of finally meeting his life saver.
What happens after this can only be described as living hell, as Willum sees Rick’s social gaffes unfold, one painfully embarrassing moment at a time. He tries desperately to overlook the snorts, missed social cues, nonsensical responses, “Who’s on First” banter, and worst of all, his tambourine. Rick shares that his dad left the family, and adds, “…it was the day after I got my tambourine,” as if this was simply a marker in time rather than a reason to flee. This pervasive stupidity begins to erode Willum’s career and sanity, as he waffles between his vow to forever honor Rick and his sanity and livelihood.
Rockville Little Theatre’s production works in so many ways, starting with Andruski’s great casting. Willum could be a boring, inane, and wimpy character, but Penick delivers this three-dimensional protagonist with the perfect blend of comic timing and placid mediocrity. His stories are dry on paper, yet Penick relays them with velvety-smooth pacing and thoughtful inflections so as to make them interesting, revealing and human. Playing the straight man is arguably the hardest role to pull off in a comedy, and Penick makes it look as easy as brushing his teeth. The show wouldn’t work unless we care about Willum’s journey, and with Penick in the role, we do.
Equally committed is Noah Steurer as Rick, the ex-GI from Wisconsin (with a perfectly grating “donCHAknow” accent) who stumbles through life never making connections between his actions and others’ reactions. Steurer plays the man, not the gaffes, which make the gaffes work; he’s the stage version of Michael Scott, both endearing and cringe-worthy. Rick just wants a real friend, and you know that he will never have one. Steurer’s physical timing is impeccable, evident as he leads a game of Shoes and Socks (see: laughed until my stomach hurt, paragraph one) and joins in on his own mockery with a one-legged conga line. Steurer is so charming on stage, and supremely watchable.
The other actors in the show deliver charm, comic timing, and energy. Brian Dettling, a real-life teddy bear, transforms into gruff, impatient, pathetically bad parent Warnock Waldgrave. No one says “gun” like Dettling. Valerie Mikles’ Clelia Waldgrave oozes anxiety as she smiles, tremors and sweetly asks for a plate to break with a portable machete. Mikles’ subtlety is what makes her inner rage so funny. Gerie Voss, as Willum’s girlfriend Tansy McGinnis, is an Energizer Bunny. This is her first acting role on stage, and rather than fear making strong choices, she throws herself into both the role and the action. Jeffrey Sampson, a 5th grader with oodles of stage savvy, delivers perfect Macaulay Culkin screams as he repeatedly comes face to face with accidentally creepy Rick.
Patrick Pase, however, steals the show in the most respectful way as Willum and Tansy’s third wheel by choice, Axel Hammond. Axel is the ultimate diva in a theatre critic’s clothes, never missing an opportunity to sling a witty zinger and slink off to make love to his bottle of Jack Daniels. Pase is absolutely hilarious; his perfect timing is in itself a master class for comedic acting. He manages to get laughs on nearly every line he utters, while neither stealing focus or cartooning Axel. He is three-dimensional, well-developed and REAL. Pase, alone, is worth the price of admission.
Technically, the show is solid. All elements work together, from Nick Sampson’s sound design to Jim Robertson’s lighting, from Andrea Kibbe’s costumes, and especially from Maggie Modig’s set design to Nancy Eynon Lark’s Set Dressing and Alexandra Correa’s Properties. The architectural drawings dangling by a thread on a corkboard, a fully stocked beverage cart, a Modigliani poster above the fireplace, and more, all color Willum’s life. Kudos to a terrific technical team.
Director Laura W. Andruski mines her talent while never taking her eye off the ball. This show has endless potential pitfalls with its physical comedy, and Andruski avoids all of them with her thoroughness and years of experience. For example, she instructed her actors to gesture wildly when they speak from under a paper bag, so the audience knows who’s speaking.
This very relatable human story of passivity and fear is the emotional center for what could be mistaken for a two dimensional farce.
Take the journey to Rockville Little Theatre’s production of The Nerd. Just make sure it doesn’t end in Wisconsin.
The Nerd plays through October 6th at Rockville Little Theatre performing at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre – 603 Edmonston Drive, in Rockville, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 314-8690, or online.
The Nerd Kicks Off TONIGHT at Rockville Little Theatre by Ken Kemp.