By the time the titular character entered the play, I'd resigned myself to having to endure two more hours of few-and-far-between laughs during Friday's performance of The Nerd, while also fighting off a sleepiness fostered by the unusually high temperature in the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre. However, appearing in only his third stage role, Jordan L. Smith woke me up and held my attention with his annoyingly nasally delivery of playwright Larry Shue's monologues. The best reason to see The Nerd, it turns out, is the nerd himself.
That's not to say that Smith's Rick Steadman - a Vietnam veteran who moves in with the man whose life he saved during the war - is perfect. Smith's portrayal is 100-percent stereotypical, right down to his wardrobe: glasses with tape over the nose-piece, suspenders, and pens poking from the pocket of his button-up-shirt.. (Thankfully, he's not also wearing a bow tie.) Here, Smith looks like a character from a musical about high school students - Grease's Eugene or Bye Bye Birdie's Harvey Johnson, anyone? - and it could be argued that such a caricature diminishes the play by removing all subtlety. Still, the actor overcomes these obstacles by playing Rick as so amusingly annoying and so awkwardly interesting, and I found it easy to like Rick for the very reasons the other characters in the play don't: there's a certain charm to his overwhelming dorkiness. I hung on his every word, wondering about the outcomes of Rick's tales of childhood, and not knowing where these strange stories would end.
Directed here by John VanDeWoestyne, Shue's comedy relies on the juxtaposition of having this imbecile thrust into a somewhat serious situation. When the title character decides to drop in on Willum Cubbert, the young architect who owes his life to Rick, Willum is in the midst of throwing a dinner party for his boss, while also saying goodbye to the woman he (maybe) loves before she moves to Washington, D.C. But Rick's visit, and his subsequent decision to move in, throw Willum's life into shambles, and ultimately push the harried architect to take part in a wickedly weird plan to get Rick to decide, for himself, that it's time to move out.
Portraying Willum, Nathan Johnson seemed determined to get his inflections and facial expressions right during Friday's performance. Yet while the meaning and emotion behind each line was clear, both vocally and physically, his effort felt too calculated to be organic. Consequently, this kept Willum from coming across as sincere, and wound up hampering the chemistry of the cast overall, as Willum is the central character around whom the plot revolves.
There is, however, notable chemistry between Lisa Pence's Tansy McGinnis (Willum's potential love interest) and Justin Raver's Axel Hammond (Willum's best friend), who share a scene during which they spar in a way that's playful rather than angry, as if the two were longtime friends familiar enough to be friendly in their debates, rather than argumentative. And Raver has some delightful moments in his role as a sarcastic, condescending, pretentious theatre critic who writes his negative reviews before seeing the plays. ("Ever see anything good?" he's asked, to which he decidedly replies, "Nope.") Raver is wonderful in the way he matter-of-factly walks to the window and tosses out a deviled egg after Rick points out that "just a little while ago, these were in birds." And his quick, dry response to another character's proclamation of "I can't conceive" (as in "understand") with "We all wish," is a gem of a delivery, so subtle that it could almost be missed.
John Donald O'Shea is at the top of his game when his Warnock Walgrave (Willum's boss) is at his angriest, which I wish happened with more frequency than it does; O'Shea's reaction to Rick's game of "Shoes & Socks" is hilarious for the unspoken motivation behind it. Suzanne Rakestraw, as Warnock's high-strung wife, speaks with undertones of sad dissatisfaction in everything, subtly shading her character with emotions just evident enough to be perceived. And Jack Sellers has little to do beyond scream and hide as the Walgraves' son (and "poster child for Planned Parenthood") Thor, but the young actor certainly shows a knack for coming timing.
Despite its fine individual performances, though, there's still a dullness to VanDeWoestyne's production of The Nerd, and part of the problem seems to be that every character in it seems nicer than they should be. With the exception of Raver, who is appropriately cynical, the rest of the cast lacks the required dislike for other characters; O'Shea plays Warnock as too friendly with Johnson's too-eager-to-please Willum for there to be any strain between the two, and Rakestraw, while notably excitable, still enjoys an amiable relationship with everyone else in the room. The only comic tension in this production is the tension created by the presence of Smith's Rick - which may be why the times he's on stage are the most interesting parts of this Richmond Hill presentation. Thankfully, after its first 20 minutes or so, Smith is on stage quite a bit.
The Nerd runs at Geneseo's Richmond Hill Barn Theatre (600 Robinson Drive) through April 22, and information and tickets are available by calling (309)944-2244 or visiting RHPlayers.com.