at the Royal-George Theatre

In Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, produced earlier this fall at the Royal-George, an intelligent young career woman with a wisecracking but lonely best friend coped with her ambivalent romantic feelings for a man who was part sensitive nice guy and part insensitive lout. Burn This has since headed to Broadway, and the Royal-George is now occupied by The Nerd. In many ways it’s the same play. The Nerd has more sight gags and less pretentiousness, and it splits the nice guy/lout character into two people. Which one of them is the real “nerd” of the title is the key to the comedy’s twist ending, which turns out to be all the more surprising for having been blatantly advertised from the beginning.

The Nerd dates back to 1981, when it was first produced in Milwaukee; but it brims with bits and pieces taken from older and better sources: most obviously The Man Who Came to Dinner, but also Arsenic and Old Lace, George Washington Slept Here, almost anything by Patrick Dennis, even She Stoops to Conquer; even the Three Stooges. “This is a desperate situation,” a character says at one point. “It calls for something infantile.” And it delivers.

The first act of The Nerd is a hilarious gut-buster if you like low, broad farce. The formula is unbeatable: take a collection of eccentric comic types and put them together in one nutty setup after another. The characters are a Milquetoast straight man, Will (Lawrence Arancio); his playfully wholesome girlfriend Tansy (Barbara Robertson); Axel (Tony Shalhoub), their David Wayneish, barb-tongued drama critic friend; Warnock Waldgrave (Bradley Mott), a pompous and blustering businessman in the mold of Auntie Mame’s Mr. Upson, his tense and self-sacrificing wife (Ann Dowd), and their bratty son (Gabriel Greene), described as “a poster child for Planned Parenthood”; and Rick Steadman (Edward Edwards), an unexpected drop-in who proves to be a prime party-pooper yahoo and crashing bore. By the end of the first act, after we who delight in this sort of silliness have been reduced to helpless laughter by the sight of all these folks in a series of insistently idiotic and viscerally funny sight gags, the only question is: how can the second act top this?

The answer, unfortunately, is that it can’t. Act one’s main business, apart from the physical shtick, was to introduce the premise: Will, already morose about professional hassles and the fact that Tansy is moving away for a better job (and in dissatisfaction with Will’s romantic foot-dragging), is unexpectedly visited by Rick, who had saved his life during the Vietnam War but whom Will knows only through correspondence. Rick is a prime dork who settles in for what looks to be a lo-o-ong visit; so act two will be about how Will, Tansy, and buddy Axel (who seems to be in love from afar with either Tansy or Will, though I was never sure which) contrive to run Rick out of Will’s house without, the mild-mannered Will insists, hurting Rick’s feelings. It’s at this point that the goofy shenanigans need to get more sophisticated and the physical gags need to give way to clever plotting and dialogue; but playwright Larry Shue merely descends further down the comic evolutionary ladder, and the laughs wear thinner and thinner.

This is despite a group of solid actors and the slick staging of Charles Nelson Reilly, who also directed The Nerd on Broadway. The best of the performances come from Edward Edwards, who played Rick on Broadway and is nerd perfect in the part here–terribly obvious, of course, like an android Garrison Keillor with the voice of SCTV’s Doug MacKenzie, but that’s what the doctor ordered; Bradley Mott, a master of comic expansiveness, as the bullying Waldgrave; Barbara Robertson, the picture of incandescent exasperation as Tansy; and Ann Dowd, whose running gag of breaking dishes to relieve her tension–she takes them out of her purse, primly wraps them in a hankie, then shatters them to bits with a ladylike hammer–may provide the evening’s funniest moments. Set designer John Lee Beatty, who was responsible for Burn This’s spacious New York loft setting, bats two for two at the Royal-George with Will’s cozy Terre Haute living room. (The props, however–including fake cottage cheese that gets spilled all over Mott–are atrociously phony looking.)

The Nerd delivers an hour’s worth of grandly unfettered giggles; even though they’re spread out over two hours that’s still something.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.