The Actors Co-op production of “The Nerd” at Hollywood’s Crossley Theatre succeeds fairly well in making quasi-plausible Larry Shue’s sitcom-ish setups, simple farce and hammy false-identity premises. The production is marred only by a flimsy, ill-conceived set and balky props.
Willum Cubbert (James Runcorn) is a mild-mannered Terre Haute, Ind., architect who’s half-heartedly celebrating his birthday with two pals. Girlfriend Tansy (Lori Rom Steadman) is about to leave town to accept a weather-girl job at a D.C.-area TV station; Willum’s neighbor Axel (Scott Damian), a smart-mouthed theater critic, used to date Tansy and enjoys an easygoing friendship with both.
Besides Tansy’s pending departure, Willum’s life is complicated by two things. A bullying developer is determined to squeeze every last drop of creativity out of a commercial project Willum is designing for him. And an old Army buddy who saved Willum’s life during the Vietnam War suddenly and unexpectedly drops by.
Rick is the nerd of the title. Clumsy, loud and self-centered, he’s the houseguest from hell. You know from the moment he enters Willum’s cluttered apartment that Rick is going to turn Willum’s life inside out. The fun, of course, lies in how it happens.
Larry Shue, who died at 39 in a plane crash, isn’t Neil Simon. Clever repartee and snappy one-liners weren’t his forte; he was a minor master of the ridiculous situation in which role-playing deception leads to outlandish results.
Director Henry Polic II leads a capable ensemble. Runcorn has just the right amount of sad-sack resignation, and Damian brings a Kevin Spacey-like drollness to Axel, who owns most of the play’s pithiest lines.
Suzanne Friedline nicely underplays Clelia Waldgrave, the developer’s wife, who handles life’s slings and arrows with a smile and a secret coping mechanism: smashing small pieces of china with a hammer she carries in her purse. Tim Farmer’s Warnock Waldgrave is heavy on the bluster, but that’s what the role requires. And Ronnie Steadman’s world-class nerd, Rick, includes more menace than most interpretations, which gives the character some fascinating bite.
Farmer is also responsible for the set, which is beset with problems. Two downstage lamps block crucial views of the theater’s thrust stage. And there are niggling issues with props: at the reviewed performance a bag caught on a window casement instead of sailing through it, and the answering machine (a crucial part of the story) went through a bout of stage fright.