Theater review: “The Nerd” by Attic Salt Theatre Company

Adam Arthur stars as The Nerd in the new Attic Salt Theatre production at NC Stage Company.
Adam Arthur stars as The Nerd in the new Attic Salt Theatre production at NC Stage Company. Photo courtesy of Attic Salt

The Larry Shue play The Nerd feels, at times, as if it were cobbled together from various parts of classic late-’70s, or early-’80s sitcoms. There’s some Bob Newhart-ensemble vibes mixed with a “Laverne and Shirley” sensibility, wedged into a late-in-its-run episode of “Mork And Mindy.” It’s odd, quirky and filled with manic flourishes. Attic Salt Theatre Company has assembled a deft cast of comedy performers to tackle this often awkward and wholly unusual play. The Nerd will be onstage at N.C. Stage Company through Sunday, April 23.

Jeff Catanese directs the penultimate play of Shue’s short career. The playwright’s final work, The Foreigner, ended up casting a long comedy shadow. But while that one is an almost perfect comedy, The Nerd is the necessary stepping stone toward that perfection. As such, The Nerd has some issues. For one, there are long sequences where the actors are trapped onstage listening to exposition pour out of disembodied answering machine voices.

Then there’s the matter of an elaborate meal where the main feature is rock Cornish game hens on everyone’s plates. No one ever even attempts to eat. Catanese and company eschew some of the problems with having the whole cast seated at a dining room table for a long period by removing the table and leaving the actors on various seats, uncomfortably holding plates. The flaws are all the doings of the playwright, and the ensemble here powers through with pluck.

The long and short of the story is that architect Willum (ably played by Patrick Brandt) is sad to see his girlfriend Tansy (Christy Montesdeoca) giving it her all as a go-getter weatherperson) take a job far away from the safety of Terre Haute, Ind. Their third-wheel pal Axel is a fast-talking, flirty man about town. John Mendenhall’s Axel is the life of any party he attends, and is just as colorful as his wardrobe (which is the textbook pastiche of the era in all its gaudy glory).

Along comes Willum’s old hero, who saved him in Vietnam. Rick Steadman and Willum never met, as Willum was wounded and unconscious. Steadman shows up on Willum’s doorstep ready to move in, and claim his place as the new best friend.

The problem is, Steadman is loud, obnoxious and horribly overbearing without any self-awareness. This tests the already testy relationship between Willum and the boss of a major project that Willum actually hates being a part of. Bill Parks plays that boss, and a wonderfully twitchy Frances Davis plays his wife. Despite the fact that they are old enough to be the kid’s grandparents, they have a son, played by Eleanor Gocynski and Anderson Bowman (who alternate performances as the bratty Thor).

Adam Arthur particularly shines as Steadman, the titular nerd. He embodies the role with the kind of glee that actors rarely get to show, sinking his teeth into this agent of chaos amid the otherwise tightly managed lives of the characters. It is that mayhem that brings Willum to realizations about his true happiness and future.

The twists are inventive, bordering on insane. The resolution is as predictable as it is a head-scratcher — so don’t think on it too hard. You will laugh. And sometimes in live theater, that’s enough. This was never meant to be a thinking person’s play.

WHAT: The Nerd by Larry Shue
WHERE: N.C. Stage Company, 15 Stage Lane, ncstage.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, April 23. Wednesdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. $14-28

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About Jeff Messer
playwright, actor, director and producer, Jeff Messer has been most recently known as a popular radio talk show host. He has been a part of the WNC theatre scene for over 25 years, and actively works with and supports most of the theatres throughout the region. Follow me @jeffdouglasmess

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