ARLINGTON Playwright and actor Larry Shue wrote two massive hits before he died at age 39 in a plane crash. Both The Nerd (1981) and The Foreigner (1983) are still performed endlessly, the latter for good reason. It’s a farce that holds up to its reputation as a laugh-riot when in the hands of comically talented actors and director.
The Nerd, not so much. Even with a respectable production like the season-closing one at Theatre Arlington, directed by Steven D. Morris, its outlandish situations are too tiring to be funny. Even if you don’t know the twist at the end, it’s hard to buy into the conceit that’s led by title character Rick Steadman (Jerry Downey).
He’s the guy who disrupts the life of gumption-devoid architect Willum (Michael Alger) when he pays a barely announced visit to Willum, a fellow Vietnam War soldier. The two supposedly have an important war connection. Rick turns out to be the guest from hell, putting a damper not only on Willum but on the party his friends, meteorologist Tansy (Jenna Anderson) and theater critic Axel (Matt Adams), have thrown for him.
Too bad the drop-in also coincides with a visit from a potential and important new client, Warnock (Robert Michael James), who stops by with his wife, Clelia (Laura Saladino), and terror of a son, Thor (Danny Wall at the performance reviewed; alternating with Wesley Jones). (Shue really went out of his way to give the oddball character, Rick, the only conventional name.)
You have to admire the detail Shue works into his scripts, the way every answering machine message and every story about the past connect the far-flung dots of character development. But Rick’s quirkiness, not to mention the games that Axel devises to oust him from Willum’s Terre Haute, Ind., home, are far-fetched even in the realm of farce.
A big part of what makes great farces work is that we’re willing to make the leap and believe that such shenanigans could happen, albeit without the timing that a sharp-minded playwright and trained performers bring.
In The Nerd, it’s stupid-silly, as opposed to fun-silly.
At Theatre Arlington, the performers are on target. Alger captures the beige uptightness of Willum. Anderson is great as the lovable, smart single woman who makes everyone wonder why Willum hasn’t seen her more clearly.
Adams has the right amount of cattiness with a forthright vision for the common good. James is funny as a tightly wound and not-so-bright businessman, but the difference in age between him and the terrific Saladino as his wife is just shy of eyebrow-raising.
Downey is a convincing menace to sanity, funniest when the wackadoodle things that come from his mouth are accompanied by what seems to be a bad case of acid reflux.
Director Morris keeps the flow well paced on Tony Curtis’ detailed beaut of a set. But even when everything is working with the regularity of well-oiled pistons, The Nerd — the character and the play — battles with our suspension of disbelief too often. Even a lenient, willing suspension is tried.