Arts Listings

‘The Nerd’ at Altarena

By Ken Bullock, Special to The Planet
Thursday October 01, 2009 - 09:51:00 AM

Working—or rather, slaving—in Terre Haute, architect Willum (Misha Madison) is having a birthday party. From his lady love Tansy (Jillian Seagrave), he receives a card for an 8-year-old (“I couldn’t find one that said 34”) and a kind of ultimatum: she’ll be leaving for D.C. to be a TV weatherwoman (“There’s something bigger than us—meteorology!”). He also receives a notice of an audit from the IRS and, from his cynical, hard-drinking theater-critic friend (clearly a realistic role) Axel (Christopher Ciabattoni), a ration of, well, acid bons mots—manque for his milquetoast demeanor. (Willum’s the sort of guy who leaves an outgoing voice message, “I’m not at home—but the front door is always open!”) 

Willum also gets a couple of birthday visits: one, which he isn’t particularly looking forward to, from his eccentric but demanding boss, Warnock Walgrave, aka “Ticky” (Matt Beall), and his overly polite wife, Clelia (Judy Beall) with their high-strung, conniving kid Thor (Noah Han), and another, heralded by an answering machine message, from Rick Steadman (Tim Beagley), the guy from Wisconsin he owes his life to, but has never met, face-to-face. 

Such is the set-up for Larry Shue’s popular screwball comedy-cum-farce, The Nerd, directed by Richard Robert Bunker, in mid-run at Altarena Playhouse in Alameda. 

Bunker, in his program notes, defines Shue’s strong comedic suit as “silly and farcical circumstances, explored by realistic characters with ‘real-world’ problems.” Actually, couldn’t that be any of us? What’s refreshing is for it to be placed in the Midwest or rural South (as in Shue’s The Foreigner) in the ’70s. 

It’s maybe the comic drift of certain situations as much—or more—as the one-liners, rejoinders and resolutions that provoke the deepest laughter: Willum, who’s wondered for years what the heroic soldier from another unit, who found him unconscious behind the lines and carried him to safety, must be like—then discovers Rick, emerging from a monster suit (Rick somehow thinking it was costume dress), who wrecks his birthday with preposterous party games, getting quickly stuck to him through Rick’s loathsome, unwavering loyalty for life, unable to cue his oblivious benefactor in on the horror inspired in all ... attacked by a ravening Nerd indeed. 

(The character of The Nerd touches the hem of political incorrectness, which also disarms the other characters. Confronted by such a vehemently sincere Yahoo, what can they do? It invites comparison with an old Barry Humphries—Dame Edna—character, supposedly his brash, learning-disorderly cousin, an embarrassment to all but his own gleeful, trumpeting self. It also covertly brings up a fundamental theatrical question: who’s acting? And who’s sincere?) 

Attempting to de-nerd his already unwieldy existence, Willum finds Nice doesn’t work—and discovers, too, he can’t play possum: this nerd’s for him. Unable to sit out the infestation, Willum and his friends call in a little help from an unseen cohort who has a plan to try and out-provincialize Rick—but, like a carny mirror image, the Nerd merely leers back distortedly. 

From party games with shoes and socks off and paper bags over heads (funny that the same playwright who in The Foreigner puts on the Klan has the Hoosiers don hoods) to a supposedly secret Terre Haute insider ritual that resemble a mangy dance for tourists by “natives” paid below scale, the slapstick gets goofier, the normal folk reveal more chagrin—and Rick, in his element, reaches for an apotheosis: a kind of normalcy. 

Special Ed teacher-by-day Bunker’s direction (he’s essayed The Foreigner , too, for Altarena) keeps what could be a ragged show from an overreaching script crisp and funny; the cast comes through as individuals and ensemble. And it’s a perfect role for comic actor Beagley, who’s played proto-nerds, outsiders, even tricksters before—like Groucho in The Cocoanuts at CCCT, a production Jillian Seagrave was featured in, too. 



8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, and at 2 p.m., Sunday, through Oct. 25 at Altarena Playhouse, 1409 High St., Alameda. $17–$20. 523-1553.