NEW LEBANON, N.Y. — The world has been very much with us on area stages in these early days of summer theatergoing so the arrival of Larry Shue's antic comedy, "The Nerd," at The Theater Barn is a welcome balm even if director Phil Rice's production tends to move in fitful, frequently self-conscious ways.
Shue, an actor as well as a playwright, died Sept. 23, 1985 in a plane crash on his way to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. He was 39. He left a legacy that includes not only this appealing 1981 comedy, "The Nerd," but also "Grandma Duck is Dead," "Wenceslas Square" and the 1985 Obie Award-winning "The Foreigner," which, along with Michael Frayn's "Noises Off" and Ken Ludwig's "Lend Me a Tenor," is about as perfect a comedy as you could want.
"The Nerd" is set in the Terre Haute, Ind. apartment of a mild-mannered, low-key, go-along-to-get-along architect named Willum (Andrew Colford) who is celebrating his 34th birthday with his good friends, Axel (Adam Giannone) and Tansy (Cara Moretto), who is more than a friend of Willum but less than a romantic partner, and who is getting ready to leave Terre Haute for a job as a weather girl at a television station in Washington, D.C.
This birthday will be unlike any other for Willum. Showing up as a surprise guest at his surprise birthday party is a nerdy chalk inspector named Rick Steadman (Brett Epstein), who saved Willum's life in Vietnam but whom Willum has never met. After coming home from Vietnam, Willum obtains Rick's address from records and pledges in a letter to him that "as long as I'm alive, you will have someone on this earth who will do anything for you. I mean it. Money? A place to stay? Anything."
And so now, years later, Rick has arrived to stake his claim on Willum's promise. Asserting that his brother, with whom he has been living for the past two years, not only has given him money and credit cards to go his own way but has outright disappeared and sold the house, Rick, without invitation, moves in with Willum and shows no signs of moving out.
Rick is a one-man wrecking crew, ripping through Willum's life and career, willfully and blithely indifferent to the damage he is causing. He makes himself the center of a bizarro world universe. He takes no prisoners, especially Willum, whose professional and artistic principles already are under siege by a businessman, Warnock "Tinky" Waldgrave (Steve King), who has hired Willum to design and build a hotel.
The question, of course, is just how far Willum's generosity of spirit and kind-hearted sense of grateful obligation and honor will extend before he takes charge and gives Rick the boot.
The performances throughout are never less than serviceable. The bond of friendship that connects Willum, Tansy and Alex is palpable.
Moretto's Tansy is an amiable, spirited young woman who clearly is in love with Willum — who, in turn, clearly is in love with her — but has grown frustrated with his inability to say what he truly feels toward her and act on it.
Giannone undermines his generally credible, robust portrayal of Axel with a too-often repeated and distracting mannerism that almost tips Shue's hand as "The Nerd" builds to its big reveal.
Rick may know no bounds but Epstein is shrewdly aware of bounds in a performance that knows just how far it can go without losing an audience.
For his part, Colford delivers a performance that, while credible, nonetheless falls short of clarity and sharp definition.
As Tinky's wife, Clelia, Jean Garner has a particularly inspired moment when she explains to Willum what she does for a living when she's not trying to keep her wild, easily frightened, often uncontrollable six-year-old son, Thor (Mason Hutchinson), under control with reasoned psychology, rather than the outright bribery used by her husband.
"The Nerd" comes by its laughs honestly. Shue has things he wants to say about friendship, love and the responsibilities we owe not only to those with whom we share our lives and feelings but, more important, to ourselves and he expresses them with shrewd, often outrageous wit and keen insight.
Written four years after "The Nerd," "The Foreigner" is a considerably more accomplished and layered comedy but you can clearly see in "The Nerd" the wonderfully mad, antic mind of a comedic genius at work. Laughter is good.