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The Arts
March 29-April 4, 2006

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The Nerd

The Nerd Who Came to Dinner: Rick Steadman plays an exquisitely obnoxious houseguest in 'The Nerd.'

Getting Rid of Rick

'The Nerd' pays a painfully funny visit to City Lights

By Marianne Messina

AS THE DIM-WITTED, cling-on houseguest from Podunk, Wis., Rick Steadman, dismantles his host's life, it's almost too painful to watch—except that in the City Lights production of Larry Shue's The Nerd, Noel Wood somehow renders Steadman appealing. Mashing his chin down to show off maximum wattle, hunching his shoulders to give himself more of a butterball shape, pushing up his thick eyeglasses in their broad, dark, plastic frames and greasing back his hair with its flattened unruly waves, this Steadman, besides being horrific in his geekishness, is someone you can't take your eyes off.

Willum (Stephen Boisvert), whose apartment Steadman has crashed, and Willum's cynical theater critic friend, Axel (Michael Farnia), try to terrify the nerd with stories of the local man-eating pigs, while the scrunched-up Wood, sandwiched on the sofa between them, looks in disbelief from one to the other. Steadman's hang-tongue frowns and eyebrow lifts feed his attraction-repulsion relationship with the audience.

And under Will Huddleston's direction, the nerd becomes even more rightly wrong: scarfing up someone's half-finished deviled egg, eating out of the serving bowl, talking with his mouth full, wiping his nose with his finger while eating, emerging from the bathroom with toilet paper trailing from his shoe or with his fly down.

The Nerd lets the audience in on the setups before they happen, a bold move considering how hideously awful some of them sound. For example, in Act 2, the invaded coterie—Willum, his girlfriend, Tansy (Katie O'Bryon), and Axel—agree that driving the houseguest off "calls for something infantile." And they reason that if they profess to practice extremely absurd customs then the nerd will develop homesickness and leave. In this production, what seems like an unbearable premise couldn't be more hilarious, dependent to a great extent on a clever visual presentation. Tea is served with cream, lemon, sugar and sand, but the extra humor comes from the cuisine-art presentation of the sand on a tea tray, its scoop set decoratively in a faux natural sac.

Huddleston presents a somewhat déclassé vision of the nerd's victims. Farnia's Axel takes the most getting used to, coming across more as a New York teamster than as the cultured Indiana snob of Shue's lines. But the snappish, East Coast way he slams in his one-liners creates humor by surprise and brute force of timing. When Steadman tells about the brother whose couch he's been living on for two years, he mentions, "Recently he's gotten into guns." "I'll bet," Axel ejects in a tone more hostile than ironic.

George S. Gemette makes Waldgrave, the architect's boss ("I own eight hotels!"), deliciously self-important, hotheaded and intolerant—and especially funny ranting with a bag over his head. Coarse in his manners, utilitarian in his tastes, the philistine to Axel's art connoisseur, this Waldgrave has all the class, and one suspects scruples, of a nightclub owner who has slashed and burned his way to fortune. This City Lights production takes a few minutes to warm up, but once it kicks in the elaborate stage business is great—like the time-sensitive malfunctions of the answering machine—and the humor is unstoppable.

The Nerd, a City Lights Theater Company production, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2 or 7pm (no show April 16) through April 23 at 529 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets are $15-$35. (408.295.9200)

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