MAGNA — Attending a performance at The Empress Theatre in Magna is a treat. The town is really not as far as you might think, and there is a sense of nostalgia entering the old theatre. Once inside, the people and performances really remind you of what community theatre is supposed to be. It is not Broadway quality, but it has more heart. This was made apparent at last night’s production of Larry Shue’s The Nerd, directed by Clayton and Jorden Cammack.
The Nerd is a perfect play for The Empress—a dinner-party drama with a small cast, it is meant to provide laughs. The play opens on architect Willum Cubbert’s 34th birthday. He enters his apartment where he finds friend Axel and sometime-love-interest Tansy. They are throwing a party but soon discover that their guest list has dwindled. First to arrive is Willum’s client Warnock Waldgrave with his wife Clelia and son Thor. The trio is unquestionably dysfunctional, but the mayhem that accompanies their arrival is nothing compared to the insanity that erupts when Rick Steadman arrives. Willum has never met Rick, the man who saved his life in Vietnam, and he is eager to give him a hero’s welcome, but that task grows more difficult as the night goes on. Finally, at the end of Act I, all of Willum’s guests leave in a hilariously angry and bewildered frenzy. Act II opens six days later. Rick has moved into Willum’s apartment and life, but despite his frustrating and outlandish behavior, Willum feels obligated to let him stay because of his heroic act in Vietnam. Eventually, however, Rick’s antics go too far and Axel and Tansy convince Willum that they can drive Rick away without hurting his feelings. Their plan is ingenious, riotous, and entertaining, but you’ve got to go see the play to find out why. Be advised that there is a most delightful surprise ending.
From a literary perspective The Nerd is a fulfilling comedy. It contains a fair amount of dramatic irony, but it is also unpredictable. The dialogue is witty, and the characters are well-formed. From a performance perspective The Nerd at The Empress is also fulfilling, even if it falls a bit short of its potential. Rest assured, there are plenty of laughs. Jake Andersen gives a celebratory performance as Rick Steadman, at once drawing on “nerd” stereotypes and adding other, unexpected characteristics. His voice, mannerisms, and movements are appropriately overbearing, and his timing is instinctual. This is not the case with the entire cast—there were certainly moments when jokes were missed, and the pace seemed too slow in places for such a comedy of gags and wit. In all, however, the characters were both relatable and believable in their world. Nathan Unck infused Willum’s character with awkward nervous energy and Robert Walgamott as Axel displayed a mischievous serenity. Bryan McNabb as Warnock made it clear that his over-the-top anger was justified just as Shanna Blythe provided Clelia’s character with a perfectly necessary amount of anxiety. Jorden Cammack as Tansy provided a nice feminine foil for the strong male leads, and Eddie Arsuffi as Thor can scream with the best of them (that is a compliment!).
The fine cast had a few shaky moments, but they will likely settle during the run and were not pronounced enough to negatively affect the show. What did affect the show at last night’s performance was the young audience, but in a good way. It seems that certain members of the cast teach theatre, and their students came out in strong support. Because of the cost of attending the theatre and the frequently-experimental form, audiences are usually aging. It was refreshing to see young faces and hear youthful laughter from the seats. An engaged audience undoubtedly does much to hide imperfections. Chances are, however, that The Nerd will draw in audiences of all ages. It would be a perfect outing for the family or for date night, but if you miss it, know that there is ample opportunity to experience old-fashioned community theatre: The Empress has a very full season with eight shows left this year.