These days, the word "nerd" conjures up images of a gently inept dork, someone who enjoys Dungeons & Dragons or tinkering with computers a little too much. But in Larry Shue's The Nerd, now playing at Madison Repertory Theatre, the misfit of the title is really more of a jerk. He's clueless about other people's feelings, wipes his nose with toilet paper found stuck on his shoe - and he just might stay at Willum Cubbert's tasteful home for good, if Willum doesn't take serious action.
Set in Terre Haute, Ind., in the early 1980s, The Nerd sets up a classic odd-couple pairing, playing sensible, 34-year-old architect Willum against oafish Rick Steadman, who saved Willum in Vietnam. In a quirk important to the plot, Willum has never seen Rick, but he's extended an invitation for his lifesaver to come visit any time.
As Rick, local favorite Lee Becker has some of the play's best lines. Having played the similarly exasperating DNR Doug in Muskie Love, Becker, a gifted comic actor, is certainly within his comfort zone.
Whereas Rick is a dorky bull in a china shop, Willum, with his professorial sportcoat and well-chosen Mission furniture, is too careful for his own good. He's unable to really take control of his career or his relationship with Tansy, a Mary Tyler Moore-esque working gal (well played by Sara Phillips) about to leave Indiana for a new job in D.C. Scott Haden, a familiar face from American Players Theatre, hits the right note as a smart everyman pushed to his limit by an aggravating houseguest.
Twenty-seven years after its premiere at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, when Shue was playwright-in-residence there, The Nerd doesn't feel especially fresh. Sure, it's a light farce, and while there are certainly funny lines and bits of physical comedy, it lacks an edge or sense of newness.
Muskie Love, though it could be faulted for a little corniness, felt fresher due to its stronger sense of place, musical numbers and more up-to-date pop-culture references. While The Nerd is a staple of professional and amateur theaters and a crowd-pleaser, reviving it doesn't break any new ground.
As warm weather sets in, it feels fitting to conclude the Rep's theater season with a light, feel-good play, but I can't help but think that a cast of this caliber could have tackled something funnier and less familiar. While director Tony Simotes of the University Theatre has brought together a tight and likable ensemble, I'd love to see them all venture into less-charted territory.