“The Nerd” is a weighty farce for a spring evening’s diversion

Jonathan Kite and Colin Hanlon in "The Nerd" at George Street Playhouse. All photos by T. Charles Erickson.
Jonathan Kite and Colin Hanlon in "The Nerd" at George Street Playhouse. All photos by T. Charles Erickson.
George Street Playhouse ends the season with The Nerd

An all-too-familiar nightmare is the houseguest who just will not leave. The dread of seeing a short visit morphing into an extended stay can torment even the most gentle-hearted soul. The late playwright Larry Shue took this situation and transformed it into a frenetic comedy, The Nerd. The George Street Playhouse offers this fast-moving confection as the last show of its first season at their temporary space at Rutgers University.

Ann Harada, Stephen Wallem and Jonathan Kite in "The Nerd." Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Ann Harada, Stephen Wallem and Jonathan Kite in “The Nerd.” Photo by T. Charles Erickson

It’s late 1979 in Terre Haute, Indiana. Willum is an architect working on his first big solo assignment, a new luxury hotel. His best friend Axel and girlfriend Tansy are concerned that job stresses are taking their toll on him. During his first act birthday party he tells them about Rick, who saved his life in Vietnam but whom he never personally met. Rick is in town and coming to Willum’s party. Also showing up for the party are Warnock “Ticky” Waldgrave, builder of Willum’s hotel, with his wife Clelia and spoiled son Thor. Rick, when he arrives, turns out to be a self-involved, clueless idiot whose boorishly inappropriate behavior is compounded by his complete lack of social skills. As Rick moves in for an indefinite stay, Willem, Tansy, and Axel join forces to get him to leave without hurting his feelings. Their efforts to do so propel a manic, improvisationally styled second act.

The cast of The Nerd are all talented
Colin Hanlon, Jonathan Kite, Kate Reinders an Zach Shaffer in "The Nerd" at George Street Playhouse
Colin Hanlon, Jonathan Kite, Kate Reinders an
Zach Shaffer in “The Nerd” at George Street Playhouse

The cast, under the direction of Kevin Cahoon, are all talented comedians. Willum, as played by Colin Hanlon, is a loveable sad sack for whom nothing seems to go as planned. Kate Reinders is just right as Tansy, a modern woman who wishes Willum had more spirit so she could fully fall in love with him. Zach Shaffer as Axel is the type of waspish proto-gay theatre critic that fulfills every negative stereotype yet is inventive, wickedly playful, and a true friend. Ann Harada is the epitome of the standard polite guest trapped at a floundering party in the role of Clelia. Stephen Wallem’s “Ticky” is all bluff and bluster, speaking in the dulcet tones of a drill sergeant and throwing his considerable heft around. Together, they make the Waldgraves a dream comic couple. Unfortunately, all of her performance and most of his take place in the first act.

Jonathan Kite’s portrayal of Rick as the guest from hell is a masterful creation
Colin Hanlon, Kate Reinders and Zach Shaffer in "The Nerd." All photos by T. Charles Erickson.
Colin Hanlon, Kate Reinders and Zach Shaffer in “The Nerd.” All photos by T. Charles Erickson.

Towering over them all is Jonathan Kite’s portrayal of Rick, the title character. His performance combines subtly controlled physicality, an annoying not-quite-whiny voice, and a single-minded passive-aggressive determination not seen since the Daffy Duck of 1940’s Warner Bros. cartoons. Sparing no thought for anyone else, he is the guest from hell, and Mr. Kite’s Rick is a hilariously masterful creation.

Set designer David L. Arsenault has come up with a witty take on a bachelor apartment of the era. He is ably abetted by the lighting designs of Jason Lyons, including a starlit early-evening sky with a full moon and evocations of the jungles of Vietnam. Good work is also done by sound designer Fitz Patton, especially his musical choices before the start of each act.

The Nerd is a mostly hilarious play populated by a talented acting troupe bringing Larry Shue’s characters to life. For a laugh-inducing evening at the theatre, I suggest you pay a visit to The Nerd at the George Street Playhouse.

The Nerd is presented by the George Street Playhouse on the Cook College campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick through May 20, 2018. For tickets and information visit GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.