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Monday, 05 May 2014 14:00

'The Nerd' is a playfully twisted mash-up

Written by Tina Farmer
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'The Nerd' is a playfully twisted mash-up
dramaticlicenseproductions.org

"The Nerd" is a delightful, if somewhat insubstantial, bit of theater mischief teeming with wry references and affected mannerisms from the "golden age of Hollywood." Filled with engaging performances built around snappy remarks, witty comebacks, comic expressions, and a dash of pure silliness, the show is a bit romantic comedy, a bit slapstick, and a bit of a mystery.

The story centers on a young couple in love; but it's a thoroughly modern love they share, meaning that each is first committed to a career, however difficult or unhappy they may be. Willum Cubbert is an architect currently stuck in a frustrating and unsatisfying position while girlfriend Tansy McGinnis is an aspiring weathergirl about to start an exciting job in another city. Alas, their love seems doomed from the curtain's open. This fact chagrins the benevolent but curmudgeonly Axel Hammond, their friend and local theater critic with apparently limitless funds and the tendency to meddle.

The show opens as Willum, Tansy, and Axel are preparing for a small dinner party to celebrate Willum's birthday. Looming over the evening is the fact that Tansy is moving to start her new job in just a week. Willum has also invited his client, Warnock Waldgrave, accompanied by his wife and son, to the party.

An unexpected call from Rick Steadman, a fellow soldier who saved Willum's life, adds another guest to the party. There's an additional, unseen character in this cast, Axel's friend. Apparently as fond of games and meddling as Axel, he is frequently heard over the telephone, and is an important piece in the plot's craftily contrived twists.

I'm not one to add spoilers for a show still in production, so I will only mention that the twists are clever with a sweet, nostalgic sensibility, and the uniformly strong cast delivers them with delighted gusto.

The ensemble features mostly familiar faces, and each has ample opportunity to revel in characters that are richly eccentric and theatrical. Solid direction from John Contini ensures that none of the actors delve too far into caricature, and he keeps the pace swift and the laced with physical comedy. Contini succeeds at pushing the action towards the absurd while allowing the actors to explore characters that are, at times, dangerously close to uncomfortable or unbelievable, though generally likeable.

B. Weller is sarcastically charming as the gruff critic with a heart of gold, Axel Hammond. Weller doesn't break any new ground with this performance, but his deft sense of timing and delivery, as well as his familiar grumble, suit the character. Moving with secretive confidence, Weller gleefully manipulates the action and other actors, an effective choice delivered with whimsical flare.

Weller is countered by the frenetic energy and social awkwardness of Mike Wells as Rick Steadman. Wells pushes his character right to the edge of oblivious annoyance and straddles that uncomfortable spot for the majority of the show. His Rick is a bit diva, a bit mensch, and he plays both aspects with unrelenting commitment. Weller and Wells engage in a playful back-and-forth that adds texture and interest to an otherwise straightforward show.

Jason Contini, as architect Willum Cubbert, and Taylor Pietz, as weathergirl Tansy McGinnis, are adorably chaste and almost unbearably supportive; they're warm without showing any real fire. Contini and Pietz compliment each other so well, however, that it's hard to fault them for creating characters in a believably comfortable relationship; I simply hoped for more passion.

The rest of the ensemble play the eccentrically over-the-top Waldgrave family, with John Reidy and Hayden Benbenek matching each other in expressive excess at every reaction and Nicole Angeli displaying hysterically teetering patience as the much put-upon mom. The three are effectively effusive and borderline chaotic, adding to the general cacophony of the production.

While the performances are all quite enjoyable, the show feels purposefully disorienting at times and simply aimless at others. The title is also somewhat confusing; in the context of the play I understand the meaning of the term "nerd," but it doesn't quite sync with the portrayal. It is only through the preponderance of quaint words and phrases in the script that the meaning, as applied, is conveyed.

The production is supported with a lovely set by Kyra Bishop that, once again, makes good use of an awkward space, and costumes, designed by Lisa Hazelhorst, that reinforce the period and help reveal personality. Complementary lighting, by Max Parrilla, and sound design, by Kevin Miko, under the technical direction of GP Hunsaker, give the show a relaxed, sunny look that mirrors the attitude of the characters.

My problem is with the story itself. It is interesting enough, but even considering its clever twists, it feels unoriginal and underwhelming. I laughed throughout and the performances feature great timing, smart comic interpretation and a lovely fluidity, but the production does not live up to the quality of its parts. The result is an easy-going show with a pleasantly twisted plot that fails to leave a lasting impression.

Though the script falls a bit short, the cast really steps it up, making the most of the material and delivering a feel-good night of quality theater. Dramatic License Productions' "The Nerd" runs through May 18, 2014. For reservations or more information, visit www.dramaticlicenseproductions.org.

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