OREM — If you are looking to step into 2016 with a night of hilarity, don’t miss Larry Shue’s The Nerd, directed by Laurie Harrop-Purser and running now at the Orem Hale Center Theater through February 6. Low on plot but high on slapstick, The Nerd has a small but strong cast that handles the cheeky one-liners with confidence. I’m surprised there weren’t more neck injuries reported from the audience as they reared their heads back in laughter for most of the two hour and 20 minute experience.
The Nerd is a wildly popular comedy written on the cusp of the 1980’s. It begins at a birthday party for an architect named Willum (played by Ryan Radebaugh) and his would-be girlfriend Tansy (played by Brittni Smith). The party is crashed by the title character, Rick Steadman (played by Brett Merritt), who saved Willum in the war in Vietnam. Rick’s social ineptitude turns the party on end, but they can’t throw him out because Willum promised he’d do anything for Rick in return for saving his life. Thus, the antics continue for an exhausting but sidesplitting week.
Amateur community casts and directors sometimes treat farces like a chaotic race, with performers often depending on the physical comedy of the conflict and forgetting about the layers and layers of comedy built into the text. Unfortunately, this production is typical in this regard. Without a doubt, the character Axel (played by Wade Johnson) gets all the best lines. However, Johnson missed the intellectual sense of balance that Axel is supposed to bring to the play, as Johnson tried too hard to be “the gunny guy,” and it didn’t work for me. Additionally, the Ferris Bueller-esque costumes (designed by Kris Hansen-Call) didn’t help much.
One of the finest highlights of the Hale performance was the scene in which the audience meets the saucer-smashing Clelia, played by Carolyn Harvigsen. Harvigsen took time executing the action that calms her character down. The audience roared at the moment, which was worth the ticket price to the show.
The other two consistently outstanding performances came from Radebaugh and Merritt. Radebaugh carried the arc of the plot well by building the tension and creating a universal conflict in a believable and natural way. I expected the title role to be played with its usual over the top physicality and goofiness, but Merritt’s nerd was played like Gary Larson Far Side cartoon. His nerd evoked empathy and warmth. His comic timing was genius.
The production is also missing the romantic relationship that Shue wants the audience to root for, when it comes up. However, with the speed at which the play moves, the relationship isn’t believable romantically and in the end, an abrupt line about courting Tansy “until she cracks” is sealed with a nice chaste peck on the cheek as he races out of the room. Is this any way to show a new commitment level from Willum? Seems like an easy fix, however: the actors need to take more time.
I am always surprised at the lengths to which the Hale crew goes to build the settings in that cracker-box space. It is amazing to me how truly creative their “creative team” is. Kudos to the design teams for maximizing the space so well, as usual. For this production they converted the Orem Hale stage into an apartment of a young and upcoming 1980’s architect, with multiple corner doors that served the farce well.
If you are looking for a way to set a happy tone for 2016, you must see The Nerd! Early sold-out audiences surely can’t be wrong. Make a call today or go online and pick up those tickets as soon as you can before this show closes. You’ll be sorry you missed it.