The Nerd at Playcrafters Barn Theatre Through September 25

As the lights come up on Playcrafters' production of Larry Shue's The Nerd, we find ourselves in the Terre Haute, Indiana, living room of architect Willum Cubbert (Josh Kahn), whose pseudo-girlfriend, Tansy (Jessica Nicol), and drama-critic friend, Axel (Chris White), are throwing him a surprise birthday party. For about 20 minutes, the three characters chat, and all the while, the light from the evening sky - seen through Willum's living-room windows in the rear of the stage - is going through the most amazing transformation. The reddish-pink hues from outside begin to subtly shift to a lovely magenta, and within time, they will have morphed into a deep, midnight blue with a hint of purple; it's a beautiful, subtle effect, well-achieved by designer Jennifer Kingry.

Unfortunately, I shouldn't have even noticed this effect. But when nothing else on a stage is piquing your interest, you find your entertainment where you can.

The reason this establishing scene is so unsatisfying - the reason, sadly, that so much of this presentation of The Nerd is so unsatisfying - lies in its lack of focus, which can only partially be attributed to the actors' apparent discomfort; the way the show has been staged by Craig Michaels, they have cause to look uncomfortable.

It's notoriously difficult to make a "living-room set" play visually interesting; how do you stage three actors conversing in a living room while allowing for believable movement as well? What often happens is that actors are directed to deliver their monologues and supply exposition while pacing or performing random bits of stage business. If the staging make sense - if, for example, characters are walking back and forth due to nerves or excitement - the extraneous movement isn't distracting; it allows for changes in the stage picture, and the performers are allowed to maintain a degree of eye contact.

The actors in The Nerd aren't pacing, though; they're meandering. Almost instance for instance, whenever characters have more than three lines in succession, they walk aimlessly about the stage and deliver their dialogue upwards, as if lost in a private reverie; the only reprieve comes when they've been directed to travel to a designated spot on the stage, pick up a random prop, look at it for a moment, and set it back down again. (It's like watching a very dull scavenger hunt.) The characters - Willum, Tansy, and Axel especially - don't connect with one another, and as a result, it's impossible to connect with them. You tune out on their dialogue and pray that Patrick Adamson will show up soon.

Adamson plays the titular house guest from hell, and he's far and away the best reason to see The Nerd. Less obnoxious geek than sweetly hulking lummox, like an eight-year-old channeling Lennie in Of Mice & Men, Adamson's Rick Steadman makes a marvelous entrance in a tacky Halloween costume - he resembles the Creature from the Black Lagoon in a DayGlo G.I. Joe outfit - and gets even funnier as the play progresses. Adamson is physically inventive, and his readings have wit and surprise, and when he converses with the others he's truly focused on what they're saying. Adamson is doing more than delivering Shue's (sometimes) funny dialogue; he's playing a character, and oftentimes, he seems like the only one on stage who is.

There are certainly laughs to be had in Playcrafters' The Nerd, even if, like me, you don't reflexively guffaw at the sight of adults eating sand and hopping around barefoot with paper bags over their heads. Gary Baker and Jackie Madunic have a couple of amusing moments, and Adamson's comic rhythms are enjoyable. But too much of this Nerd is unfocused and uninspired, and you can easily find yourself - far more often than you want to - staring out the windows.


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Broadway Bound in the Amana Colonies Through October 2

I was completely caught up in the heartache and sadness of the Old Creamery Theatre's production of Broadway Bound, so much so that I resented playwright Neil Simon every time he tried to make us laugh. This concluding chapter of the Jerome-family trilogy - which began with Brighton Beach Memoirs and continued with Biloxi Blues - is steeped in dashed dreams and familial resentment, and when the characters are confronting, or deliberately not confronting, one another with decades of hostility, director Steve Taft's production is quite moving. As Kate and Jack, the parents of budding comedy-writer Eugene (Justin McCombs), Meg Merckens and Shawn Cassidy go at each other furiously; each miserable over the way their marriage has soured, their Act I fight leaves an ugly, lingering pall in the air. Similarly, when Eugene's Aunt Blanche (Marquetta Senters) gets in a nasty squabble with Jack, the words and feelings behind them sting - it's Neil Simon, but Merckens, Cassidy, and Senters may as well be doing O'Neill for the concentration and depth they're giving their roles.

But damn Simon and his punchline-happy style! For every moment that feels honest and emotionally charged, there's a lame bit involving the clan's goofy granddad (Marshall Nielsen) - used by Simon for homespun wisdom and cheap jokes - and fraudulent Your Show of Shows-style repartee between Eugene and his brother Stanley (Jonesy McElroy), and the dichotomy between the comedic and dramatic elements never gels; there could be two completely different shows happening on-stage simultaneously. (Broadway Bound reads far better than it plays.) The cast at the Old Creamery is performing Simon's work exactly the way it's meant to be played - Long Day's Journey Into Night as a sitcom. Audiences must decide for themselves whether that's a good thing.


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