“The Nerd,” the opening production of the Colony Theater’s 2003-04 season, has become, over the last 20 years, a hit Off Broadway and on London’s West End, confirming the popularity of the guest-from-hell genre represented by “The Man Who Came to Dinner” and 1991’s zany Bill Murray pic “What About Bob?” French Stewart (“3rd Rock From the Sun”) and this cast of resourceful actors keep the fun going with unflagging fervor and personality even when strained patches appear in this crowd pleaser.
Larry Shue’s plot grows less inventive after the comedy cards are laid on the table, and characters either vanish or don’t develop fully. But several sequences are guaranteed to make even the crustiest curmudgeon break into boisterous laughter.
The put-upon host is Willum (Ed F. Martin), an Indiana architect glumly confronting his 36th birthday with best friend Axel (Kevin Symons), a cynical drama critic, and girlfriend Tansy (Faith Coley Salie), who plans to leave him and accept a TV job as weather girl in Washington, D. C.
Willum’s demanding boss Ticky, (Jonathan Palmer), his schoolmarmish wife, Clelia (Cindy Warden), and unruly son Thor, (Justin M. Bretter), drop in to create havoc. But all this is nothing compared to the arrival of Rick (Stewart), who saved Willum’s life in Vietnam and has popped up unexpectedly to stay as long as his harassed host will have him.
Rick, predictably, is pushy, overbearing and intrusive. Luckily, under David Rose’s unrestrained direction, Stewart’s unique aptitude for squinting, lisping and double takes wrings every last bit of humor from bizarre situations. The gifted clown is at his best instigating a party game called Shoes and Socks, which requires the apoplectic guests to wear paper bags on their heads and poke around for the missing items. He’s the classic bore, describing every dreary detail of his life as a chalk inspector and listing events on a monthly basis, prompting Axel to protest, “We didn’t bring our pajamas.” The play is worth seeing if only for the chance to watch Stewart sing “Venus in Blue Jeans” while walloping his rear end with a tambourine.
Stewart’s skills are particularly welcome in the second act, when Willum, Tansy and Axel devise an absurd scheme to drive Rick away — a plan that involves painting an existence so gruesome that Rick will flee. This section — even though bolstered by A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s way-out costumes — is too long, and comes across as farcical overkill. More disappointing is the surprise ending, which may have felt like a clever twist when conceived but invalidates too much of what we’ve seen before.
Matching Stewart in comedic ingenuity is Cindy Warden, Ticky’s agitated wife, so traumatized by her spooky son and neurotic husband that she can’t help smashing and destroying dishes. As Ticky, Jonathan Palmer is a perfect prig, memorably preposterous when he reacts to being pelted with cottage cheese. Kevin Symons has the script’s sharpest lines as a critic who never saw a show he liked, and he handles every dry zinger with aplomb. Justin M. Bretter does well with the irritating part of Thor, a role that could have been cut with no loss. Ed F. Martin sensibly invests his part with forthright sincerity, and Faith Coley Salie is a winning, desirable heroine.