Laughs and Cringes Abound in Farcical Production

By Scott Clark

The Nerd, The Lofte Community Theatre, Sunday October 15, 2023

In his director’s introduction, before the play began, The Lofte’s Kevin Colbert gave the audience some background about The Nerd. Set in 1979, The Nerd is the first of two major literary contributions made by playwright Larry Shue, and first premiered in 1981. Shue’s other significant work was The Foreigner, which premiered in 1983. Shue’s writing career was cut short by his tragic death in a plane crash in 1985, at the age of 39. But both The Nerd and The Foreigner have remained regular fare for high school and community theaters in the decades since. And the Lofte Theatre’s current production of The Nerd, which completed its first of three weekends on Sunday, shows why it remains a popular favorite.

The Nerd is a two-act comedy farce. In the first act, we are introduced to all of the characters. Chris Berger plays Willum Cubbert, a young architect in Terre Haute, IN, who also serves as landlord to his two friends, Tansy McGinniss (played by Teagan Steinmeyer – making her debut with The Lofte’s “Born in a Barn Players”), and Axel Hammond (played by Randy Wallace). Tansy is preparing to move to Washington, D.C. to take a job as a television meteorologist, in part because her obvious infatuation with Willum doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. And Axel, a somewhat self-centered drama critic (who offers up several humorous “insider” bon mots about the world of the theatre) is the early comic relief. Tansy and Axel are hosting a 34th birthday party for the work-obsessed Willum, which includes invitations to Willum’s current employer, the uptight hotel magnate Warnock Waldgrave (played by Jon R. Kruse), as well as Waldgrave’s wife Clelia (Christa Dunker) and bratty young son Thor (John Bryant, also a new “Born in a Barn Player”).

The night is awkward enough with this cast of somewhat high-strung individual characters. But that’s nothing compared to what happens when the final cast member puts in an appearance. A telephone answering machine message informs Willum of the imminent arrival of Rick Steadman, the man who saved Willum’s life during a very short tour-of-duty in Vietnam…but whom he’s never actually ever met in person. Rick arrives midway through Act I, mistakenly believing the party is a Halloween-themed costume party (which provides for some early hilarity). But when his costume is dispensed with, Rick Steadman is revealed to be a stereotypical “nerd” – white shirt with bowtie, black pants hiked up to mid-chest, dorky glasses held together with masking tape, mismatched socks and a high-pitched nerdy voice that would do Jerry Lewis proud.

The rest of the first act revolves around how the birthday party turns into a nightmare, mostly due to Steadman’s awkward, unfiltered, overly enthusiastic idiocy, and Willum’s desire to keep his wartime benefactor happy. Act II picks up several days later, as Willum has finally reached the breaking point with his new, unwanted, houseguest Rick, and agrees to work with Axel and Tansy in a scheme to drive the unwanted “Nerd” away.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Standouts include Berger’s Willum, as we watch his unflappable attitude slowly get whittled down until his inevitable meltdown. Berger’s expressions, especially when he’s reacting to the actions and lines of the other characters, were particularly entertaining. Kruse’s Waldgrave reminded me of the stereotypical “gruff no-nonsense businessman” characters of 1960s and early 1970s sitcoms…which is not a complaint but rather a compliment. He did a terrific job of never cracking a smile during the entire play (I was watching very carefully!), which was quite an accomplishment considering the level of abuse his character is forced to endure. Dunker, as Mrs. Waldgrave, was particularly hilarious as we learn of her method of dealing with stress in one of the play’s funniest scenes. Steinmeyer was heartfelt and stalwart in her performance as Tansy, and ultimately provides the impetus for the play’s emotional climax, even if Willum is a bit too oblivious to realize. Wallace, as Axel, has the unenviable position as the character who’s intentionally trying to be funny, with multiple wisecracks or comic asides. But, I found him at his most charming when having to roll with the punches and change plans mid-stream.

Which brings us to The Nerd himself. Michael Booton is the crazy glue that holds this group together, and simultaneously drives them all apart. His Rick Steadman is a larger-than-life nut job, seemingly incapable of being aware of the chaos he is wreaking on everyone around him. He is part Jerry Lewis’s nutty professor, part Steve Martin’s “The Jerk” (there’s a moment of deliberate Martin reference) and part Steve Urkel. Booton holds the audience’s attention (and won’t let go), whether he’s committing dinner party guests to an absurd game of “socks and shoes”, describing his ridiculous job as inspector in a chalk factory, wringing his pants pockets inside out, or whether he’s hijacking an already over-the-top made-up pagan ritual. I laughed just watching him eat an inedible appetizer! Booton makes Steadman the man you love to hate.

Set design and lighting are by director Kevin Colbert, as usual with Lofte productions, and are up to his usual excellent standards – though I kept waiting to see if two doors in one corner of the stage that opened towards each other were going to be a plot point (they weren’t). Costumes were particularly good, especially the “Nerd” costume, Axel’s fancy dress suit, Rick’s “monster” outfit, and Waldgrave’s “cottage cheese” suit in Act II (don’t ask)!

The Lofte had previously done The Nerd as their 50th show years ago, and this production is now their 206th! This is just another example of the excellent shows you can catch in regional theaters just outside of Lincoln. Despite it feeling like it ran a little long, the audience was enthralled – there was tons of laughter, including a few audience members who had trouble stopping themselves from reacting to plot points in advance! As I waited to congratulate some of the performers after the show, I overheard effusive praise from other audience members, saying how much fun they had.

You’ll have fun, also, if you make the relatively-short drive East of Lincoln to Manley, Nebraska, to catch one of the remaining two weekends’ worth of performances of this silly, engaging, thought-provoking farcical comedy. Don’t forget your pocket protectors!

If you go: The Lofte Theatre is located at 15841 Manley Rd., in Manley, NE 68403 – about 40 minutes east of Lincoln. Remaining performance dates for The Nerd are October 20, 21, 22, 26, 27, 28 and 29 – Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:00, Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Get your tickets now online or by calling the box office at (402) 234-2553.

Scott Clark has worked in a variety of roles for the Lincoln City Libraries for nearly 45 years, where he regularly shares book, music and film reviews on their readers advisory website, BookGuide. He’s also reviewed books for the Lincoln Journal Star, and KFOR radio, and has shared his reviews of films and stage shows on his blog and Facebook feeds for many years. He’s a reader, writer, actor, and theatre nerd, who loves to share his enthusiasms, in an effort to connect people with things they just might fall in love with!

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