×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

L.A. Theater Review: ‘Letters from a Nut by Ted L. Nancy,’ Produced by Jerry Seinfeld

For better or worse, Jerry Seinfeld enables friend and longtime comedy writer Barry Marder to bring his prank-letter series to the stage.

With:
Ted L. Nancy (Barry Marder), Beth Kennedy, Sam Kwasman.

Randall Arney
Artistic Director
Geffen Playhouse
10886 Le Conte Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90024

Dear Sir:

First, let me just say that I am a great admirer of your institution, the Geffen Playhouse — and the man for which it is named. (Did you know that Dreamworks SKG is also named for David Geffen? He’s the “G.”)

I should add that the Geffen Playhouse has some of the finest restrooms in Westwood. Although you might want to change the industrial pink soap. I don’t like the way it makes my hands smell.

As I’m sure you know, Los Angeles is starved for live theater. That is why it troubles me that the Geffen would dedicate its second stage to “Letters from a Nut by Ted L. Nancy” — which isn’t so much a play as a live reading of prank letters to corporate customer service representatives and various world leaders, previously collected in a series of novelty books — when so many young talents are relegated to tiny stages in Pasadena and that stretch of Melrose just north of the DMV.

Surely there is a more appropriate venue — perhaps a comedy club, or bingo night at a local retirement home — where Mr. Nancy (a pseudonym for comedian Barry Marder, who writes for the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher) can share his epistolary wit, which includes an earnest request to an Indian casino requesting that he be allowed to sell ham sandwiches in the men’s room, or a series of letters to Harriet Carter, asking the gift company whether they stock an electric chair, a gas chamber or a firing squad.

Seventy minutes is a long time to listen to Marder recite passages from his books, the lot of which cost approximately half the price of a theater ticket. Marder maintained the Ted L. Nancy character for years, but it’s not entirely clear whom Marder is playing on stage. Not Nancy, who’s most amusing when the person on the other end is obliged to take him seriously in that charitable “the customer is always right” attitude that allows a kook to get away with, say, accusing Ralphs grocery stores of selling him a haunted sponge. And not himself, although he does make the prank-letter premise clear via an opening monologue (one that’s funnier than anything that follows, suggesting that a standup show might’ve been a better use of Marder’s talents).

Popular on Variety

I must admit that it was Seinfeld’s name that drew me to the show. He has been Marder’s greatest public champion, writing introductions for the books, and outing their true author on TV (after others took credit). On YouTube, one can find a 2013 video of Seinfeld and Marder spitballing ideas for some sort of surrounding narrative on which they might have hung Ted L. Nancy’s letters, although I guess that never materialized.

And who is this “Pierre Balloón” credited as director anyway? In the end, Marder shares the stage with Beth Kennedy, who assumes more than two dozen accents and disguises as the various customer service representatives (for everything from Degree deodorant to Health Guard toilet seat covers), and a clown (Sam Kwasman) who throws confetti and lip-syncs “Pagliacci.” Kennedy’s role requires considerable energy and a modicum of acting ability, as she attempts to channel the spirit in which they replied. Isn’t that the real joke here? That no matter how annoying Nancy’s letters, it’s the job of these hapless corporate spokespeople to treat his requests seriously?

It’s less funny when Nancy addresses a letter to random world leaders, insulting their countries, while requesting a signed photo of the president/prime minister in question. Or maybe it is funny to those who couldn’t locate the Czech Republic on a map, and think the name Vaclav Havel sounds silly. Marder gets a laugh when he props a signed photo of Havel on his desk, ignoring the fact that such an artifact would hold genuine value to anyone with a passing awareness of the philosopher-turned-president’s contributions to democracy. Certainly, Havel (an accomplished playwright) would have known how to turn this mess into a proper piece of theater.

Perhaps I’m missing the joke. Still, it’s strange that Marder’s shtick depends on sounding credible enough to elicit a response, while his goal is to be so outrageous that his targets can’t possibly sustain the conversation (as when he counters Nordstrom’s polite reply to his already-bizarre request to purchase a mannequin that reminds him of a dead neighbor with a new demand, this time to buy a younger model from the athletic department).

Since the jokes work best in the imagination, we don’t need the goofy photos, nor Alan Marder’s ridiculous illustrations (familiar to readers of the books, or those who know Ted L. Nancy’s “Scammers” series from Hulu). And while amusing to see a clip in which “The Office’s” Oscar Martinez hand-deliver a set of Mickey Mantle’s toenails to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the inclusion of such video sketches further begs the question what this show is doing on stage in the first place.

In summary, it turns out that trying to be funny while writing obnoxious letters is harder than it looks. But then, so is sitting through them.

Sincerely,
Peter Debruge

L.A. Theater Review: 'Letters from a Nut by Ted L. Nancy,' Produced by Jerry Seinfeld

Audrey Skirball Theater at the Geffen Playhouse; 117 seats; $85 top. Opened June 28, 2017; reviewed June 29, 2017. Running time: ONE HOUR, 8 MIN.

Production: A Geffen Playhouse production of a play in one act by Ted L. Nancy.

Creative: Directed by Pierre Balloón. Sets/lighting, Daniel Ionazzi; dramaturg, Phyllis Murphy; illustrator, Alan Marder; video, Carolla Digital; production stage manager, Julie Ann Renfro; casting, Phyllis Schuringa.

Cast: Ted L. Nancy (Barry Marder), Beth Kennedy, Sam Kwasman.

More Legit

  • Warner Bros. Pictures trailer launch event

    Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jon M. Chu Tease 'In the Heights' Movie

    Lin-Manuel Miranda, director Jon M. Chu and star Anthony Ramos took the train to the top of the world to offer a sneak peek of “In the Heights,” Warner Bros.’ big-screen adaptation of Miranda’s (other) hit musical. “I’m thrilled we’re here, and I’m thrilled we’re uptown,” Miranda rhapsodized to a packed crowd at a cozy [...]

  • Lucas Hnath

    Listen: Lucas Hnath's Own Play Gives Him Nightmares

    Tony-nominated playwright Lucas Hnath (“A Doll’s House, Part 2”) has two shows in New York this season: a monologue based on the real-life experiences of his mother, and a ghost story. One of them gave him nightmares — but it wasn’t the ghost story. Listen to this week’s podcast below: He explained why on the [...]

  • Greater Clements review

    'Greater Clements': Theater Review

    The American Dream and all of its values have taken quite a beating lately. Director and screenwriter Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” Bruce Springsteen’s recent “Western Stars” album, even Ralph Lauren in the documentary “Very Ralph” show us how this country and all of its totems and merits have gone asunder. No dreams are more crushed, [...]

  • Harry Connick Jr Walk of Fame

    Harry Connick Jr. on Returning to Broadway

    Harry Connick Jr. is headed back to Broadway with a three-week limited engagement celebration of legendary songwriter Cole Porter. The actor and musician came up with the concept for the show and is also directing. “I love Broadway and if I had two careers one of them would be only Broadway just because I love [...]

  • Jagged Little Pill review

    Broadway Review: 'Jagged Little Pill'

    Nearly 25 years after “Jagged Little Pill” hit the shelves of record stores, Alanis Morissette’s innovative 1995 album has arrived on Broadway under the muscular direction of Diane Paulus, who launched this galvanic production at the American Repertory Theater. The show’s supportive book by screenwriter Diablo Cody interprets Morissette’s musical idiom as a universal domestic [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content