Rick Steadman, aka The Nerd, is the guest from hell who comes and stays and stays and stays…in Larry Shue’s hilarious comedy, The Nerd.  Shue only wrote two plays (The Nerd and The Foreigner) in a life cut far too short, but they are both comic gems which assure his legacy. There is hardly a theater company (regional, community, or school) that hasn’t presented at least one of them, and with good reason.  They are funny, outrageous, absurd delights, and Shue’s The Nerd is now getting an almost perfect production at the Hermosa Beach Playhouse.


At curtain rise, we meet Willum Cubbert, a handsome young architect, his girlfriend Tansy, and good friend Axel in Willum’s Terre Haute home. Tansy is about to leave Indiana (and Willum) for a weathergirl job in Washington D.C. Axel has something (sarcastic) to say about this and just about everything else, for unlike this reviewer, drama critic Axel relishes in “accentuating the negative” and because of deadlines, never even stays to see the end of a show.  For all he know, Godot actually arrived.

Willum is a 34-year-old Viet-Nam vet (the play is set in 1979) whose life was saved in “Nam” by a certain Rick Steadman, a “wounded grunt” who rescued Willum with his “one good arm.”  Willum has never met Rick, but he has vowed to him eternal gratitude.  Today there is a message from Rick on Willum’s answering machine. “You said if I was ever in the area, to come over for a  visit,” says the recorded voice. “So here I am. I’m coming!”

Come he does (dressed as The Creature From The Black Lagoon), and turns out to be the oddest and most obnoxious creature Willum, his friends, or just about anyone has ever laid eyes on.  To say he’s lacking in social graces would be the world’s greatest understatement, so when Rick decides to move in with Willum…well, desperate times call for desperate measures.
Director Ted Escobar clearly knows a thing or two about comedy and pacing, and has staged The Nerd for maximum laugh effect, aided by a terrific cast.

Pint-sized Jeff Asch gives a tour de force performance as Rick, with his plaid pants, nasal whine, and fearless lack of inhibitions.  As Willum, supercute Mike Tushaus underplays perfectly, providing just the right counterpoint to the bigness of Asch’s every word, move, and gesture. Don Fowler is absolutely marvelous as Axel, a flamboyant multicolored performance that never strikes a false note.  Jessica Gisin is a deft comedienne, but is miscast as Tansy, a character actress in a leading lady role.
Completing the ensemble are a trio of first-rate supporting players. Jack Messenger does sensational work as Warnock (“Ticky”) Waldgrave, Willum’s blustery boss. Third-grader Brendan Brady gives one of the most assured child-actor performances I’ve ever seen as Thor, Warnock’s holy terror of a child.  Finally, the always fine Aileen-Marie Scott has loads of fun as Clelia, Ticky’s uptight wife (who carries a hammer in her purse in order to break a piece of china whenever the stress of hubby and child get to be too much).
Actor Tushaus does double duty here as Nerd star and set designer, and what a gorgeous set he has created, wood paneled and rustic, with French doors and sun roof.  Christopher Beyries has contributed a vivid lighting design.  (One question, though?  With only a chandelier and a desk lamp, where is it all coming from?)  Erik Bleuer’s sound design provides the needed effects, and Christa M. Armendariz’ costumes have an appropriate period feel (Tansy’s shoulder pads) and the ones she’s designed for Rick are brilliantly ugly.

A cautionary note—not everyone loves Rick Steadman’s antics. I have a friend who sat gruffly next to me in a previous (and equally fine) production, unable to find any humor in Rick’s obnoxiousness.
I happen to love Rick. I’ve seen three very different actors tackle this demanding role.  I’ve loved every one of them, and Asch may just be the best of the bunch.  Once again the Hermosa Beach Playhouse proves itself quite possibly the best non-Equity house around in the L.A. area.

Hermosa Beach Playhouse, 710 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach.

–Steven Stanley
April 1, 2008
–Photos: Alysa Brennan

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