Monday, Nov. 14, 2011

Soulstice's THE NERD: A Light Comedy That Respects Its Audience

(wow)

By Russ Bickerstaff
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It’s difficult to imagine precisely what line of thought Ben Zook had in mind with the screenplay to Jack and Jill. Same guy plays identical twin brother and sister. Andam Sandler picks up the idea and it becomes a modest success at the box office even as it’s more or less universally hated. The thing is . . . a movie like Jack and Jill gets made and I would imagine most of the people going to see it know it’s going to be kind of stupid comedy. And they go anyway. The price of a movie ticket? $9. The price of a ticket to Soulsitce Theatre’s latest comedy? $18. For twice as much you get a comedy just as light that in no way attempts to insult your intelligence. A show that respects your intelligence costs twice as much as the latest Adam Sandler vehicle, but it’s really A LOT better, judging from the critical and commercial reaction to Jack and Jill.

Larry Shue's The Nerd is light stage comedy at its best. No one appears in drag. Though there’s a heart at the center of it, there’s no cheesy attempt at some deeper, borrowed emotionality to round out a big budget movie production. It’s just a fun show with a couple of fun characters and a few really, really good performances. For the price of two mindless movies that you’d probably feel a bit better about seeing on TV next year, you could see a comedy that’s actually kind of good live.

There’s a kind of nostalgia about walking into the Keith Tamsett Theater for this show. The set looks kind of like an upscale home somewhere in the early ‘80’s.  There’s a framed image from the work of Patrick Nagel in there . . . kind of a tasteful looking ‘80’s that sets-in amongst establishing pop music from  the era--Blondie, Duran Duran and the one song anyone knows from Bow Wow Wow. I sat, enjoyed the music and had a $2 beer. Kind of a fun vibe going into the show.

The show itself is one that I’ve only come to love after having seen a couple of different productions of it. Set in Terra Haute, Indiana, the play tells the story of Willum Cubbert—an architect who can’t seem to assert himself who finds himself evidently visited by a man who saved his life in Viet Nam . . . a man he owes his life. The man who drops by is the title character—Willum has a hell of a time trying to live up to his life debt, as the man who saved his life—Rick Steadman—is extremely annoying.

It’s an ensemble comedy and not all of the ensemble is brilliant, but there’s more than enough here to make Soulstice’s The Nerd a really, really fun light comedy. Chief among the reasons to see this show has to be the performance of Jason Thompson as Cubbert. This may be the third or fourth time I’d seen the show, but I’d never seen Cubbert played quite this well. Brian Vaughn was nice enough in the role in the Rep’s production in ’07, but there was kind of a swagger to him that kept the character from being entirely sympathetic. Thompson’s performance here plays a little more into the character’s vulnerable side, which makes his break down towards the end of the play all the more dramatic and dramatically funny. Vaughn is a really good comic actor, but without more of a vulnerability to the role, he came across as more of a cocky ambivalence than a genuinely troubled self-consciousness. Not that Thompson over plays it at all . . . he seems perfectly natural in the role of a guy who has entered a slump in his life he is ubable to break free from any time soon. As the full reality of Steadman’s presence in his home becomes more and more apparent, we see Thompson switch gears into a really tightly-wound individual. The conversation where he attempts to get up the courage to tell Steadman to leave is brilliantly comic.

For his part, Joe Krapf is pretty fun as Steadman. The character is from Wisconsin and Krapf plays-up the Wisconsin-ness of the character really well. He’s not as manically annoying as the character could’ve come across, but he’s still pretty aggressively tedious, which is really important for the overall structure of the entire production.

And as good as the rest of the cast was, I’m still waiting for the perfect delivery of some of the more bizarre moments illustrated in the play. The Shoes and Socks party in Act One has the potential to be really, really funny, but I’ve never seen anyone carry it off quite as good as it could’ve been. Larry Sshue actually makes it kind of a challenge to get perfect. It kind of requires that everyone involved in the ensemble not only be performing really well in character, but it also requires that peak comically at all the right times to carry through the entire scene. There's a really complicated dynamic there and it's almost impossible to get perfect. It didn’t quite happen the night I was there, but I don’t doubt this cast could carry it off under the right circumstances. Even without a perfect game of shoes and socks, the ply is well worth going to. This is really fun light comedy.

Soulstice Theatre’s The Nerd runs through November 19th with shows this Friday and Saturday. For ticket reservations, visit Soulstice online or call  414-481-2800.

 

 

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