Photo by Michael Lamont
Few things were more unnerving to L.A. theater audiences in the 1990s than the French Stewart Scowl, a sardonic and enigmatic leer familiar to fans of Justin Tanner’s shag-rug comedies at the Cast Theater. When trained upon a stage adversary, the scowl could pose a wordless challenge or a formidable putdown. After Stewart joined NBC’s quirky comedy hit 3rd Rock From the Sun, TV viewers came to know the Stewart Squint, a slit-eyed stare that proved less sexy than the scowl but no less troubling. Stewart is back onstage with a hybrid countenance — a slack-jawed grimace suggesting willful bafflement — and is giving it a full workout at Burbank’s Colony Theater. The occasion is a revival of Larry Shue’s 1981 comedy, The Nerd, and although its titular character is not the story’s protagonist, Stewart is clearly its star — or rather, his clueless gaze makes him the star.
Willum Cubbert (Ed F. Martin) is a Terre Haute architect whose girlfriend, Tansy (Faith Coley Salie), is leaving him and Indiana to become a Washington, D.C., TV weather announcer. But not before the unexpected arrival of Rick Steadman (Stewart), who saved Willum’s life when both were soldiers in Vietnam. Willum has never actually met Rick face to face, but, through correspondence, has always assured him a place to stay if and when his savior ever found himself in Terre Haute.
Suffice to say, Rick arrives and never sees a reason to leave, preferring to idle away the autumn days on Willum’s couch rather than return to work at a Wisconsin chalk factory. Worse, Rick is a tambourine-banging, socially tone-deaf oaf who screws up Willum’s phone messages and endangers the architect’s relationship with a gruff businessman (Jonathan Palmer).
An actor-playwright, Shue left behind a small but acclaimed body of work before he died at the age of 39 in a 1985 plane crash. The Nerd fits into a large subsection of the comedy genre that could be called Put-Upon American Stories — tales about reasonable, good-natured people who are besieged by unreasonable, ill-tempered friends, neighbors or relatives. This is host-vs.-horde theater in which the latter’s outrageously selfish demands tax a generous hero’s time, cash and serenity.
At one end of the spectrum (admittedly, the cynical edge), The Nerd can be seen as a curtain raiser to America’s selfish Me Decade, the ’80s, a cautionary fable warning us against the dangers of altruism. Or it can be looked upon as a what-if play in which our subconscious fears of being taken advantage of are made real in the form of a human parasite. In any case, as funny as it is in parts, the play is not a great comedy, and at his best Shue comes across as a Midwestern Alan Ayckbourn; some dialogue is there for pure ornamentation, and sometimes Shue doesn’t know when to end a line, as though afraid his audience won’t get the joke. (Responding to an invitation to “spill out onto the porch,” Axel warns, “You eat my food, you’ll spill out onto the porch. Spill out onto the carpet.”)
There are also plot holes — the obvious question is why, when Rick is portrayed as such a devout Christian, don’t Willum and his friends drive him off simply by presenting themselves as militant atheists? It would possibly have made the humor a bit more political, but then, perhaps this was ground Shue felt uncomfortable trespassing upon. Instead, Willum’s friends try to scare away Rick by inventing some truly bizarre Hoosier customs and superstitions. (“Boiling hot tar all over your face?” Tansy offers Rick by way of a dinner appetizer.) Still, among such moments of juvenile farce, there is a kind of good-natured nuttiness that appeals to even the most jaded, and enough understanding of human foibles to indicate the promise of Shue’s satirical development.
Rick Steadman shows us that nerds need not be smart, merely self-absorbed. Stewart wears his character’s uniform as suggested by Shue’s stage directions (white shirtsleeves, horn-rimmed glasses, black clip-on tie), but his unique frown and braying, obnoxious tics put his own brand upon the role and help this production, gracefully directed by David Rose, to rise above the level of frat-house sketch.
But Stewart doesn’t do it alone; Palmer (another Tanner alumnus) turns in a solid performance as Warnock Waldgrave, the intimidating stuffed shirt who is forever wiping egg (or, rather, cottage cheese) off his face, while Cindy Warden stands out as his arthritically tense wife. As the hero host, Willum, Martin (always an affable and assuring presence onstage) is suitably Job-like as the put-upon nice guy — he’s someone we root for, even though his problem is mostly of his own making. Kevin Symons, as Willum’s wisecracking friend, Axel, and Justin M. Bretter, as little Thor Waldgrave, round out the capable ensemble. Bradley Kaye’s detailed set (hardwood floors bearing the worn marks of furniture) and David Flad’s warm lighting complete a homey setting that is all too vulnerable to a stranger’s knock.
In translation, Simone de Beauvoir’s novella The Monologue is not something you read on a beach blanket. It’s not even something you’d read outdoors; the story, which forms a third of de Beauvoir’s collection The Woman Destroyed, is a galloping rant uttered by a Parisian woman named Murielle who finds herself alone on New Year’s Eve. The Monologue begins with the line “The silly bastards!” and, 30 pages later, ends with Murielle telling God to grant her divine revenge against those who have deserted her. Murielle’s screeds against parents, lovers, husbands and the partygoers dancing in the apartment upstairs have an Underground Man ring to them, which means that while offering a bracing read, they do not seem promising theater material.
Not, that is, unless Frederique Michel comes along and tries her hand at it with her City Garage ensemble in the form of The Sweet Madness. To make the 80-minute performance palatable as a stage adaptation, Michel apportions the text to four actresses wearing black (Cynthia Mance, Szlivi Naray-Davey, Elizabeth Pocock, Cheryl Scaccio) who take turns bemoaning a wasted life, as a fifth woman (Jennifer Piehl) moves about the stage silently observing. This mute spectator is Murielle’s daughter Sylvie, and her fate, we learn, is one reason for her mother’s lonely New Year’s.
Murielle is not someone the audience can cozy up to; vain, vindictive and snobbish, she is neither a feminist martyr nor a forgotten-mother icon. Although The Monologue has been staged several times in the U.K. as a one-woman show, it makes a certain sense to divide Murielle’s ruminations and tirades among four voices; it’s a strategy that keeps the monologue from becoming monotonous and certainly mitigates our hostility toward Murielle. However, this rhetorical solution doesn’t add anything to the work, and Michel’s direction doesn’t noticeably individualize the four Murielles by assigning specific themes to each of the actresses. They remain indistinguishable parts of the same self-pitying organism, albeit smartly choreographed by Michel through small, synchronized gestures such as dialing phones or crossing legs.
My main suggestion would have been to cast older actresses; although de Beauvoir’s Murielle is 43, Michel has changed her to 35, which makes her actresses far too young to be looking back over a life of regrets. The glaring age disparity also undermines the believability of Murielle’s sexual solitude, especially in France, a country far less obsessed with youth than our own.
Charles A. Duncombe Jr.’s set is appropriately stark, as is his lighting plot; still, the upstage lights cast some unfortunate shadows on Sylvie, not the least of which is a Hitler “mustache” under her nose, a shading that would seem more appropriate for Murielle. If Sartre proposed that hell is other people, de Beauvoir’s Murielle is proof that hell can sometimes have a population of one.
THE NERD | By LARRY SHUE | At the COLONY THEATER, 555 N. Third St., Burbank | Runs through July 6
THE SWEET MADNESS | Written by SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR, adapted by FREDERIQUE MICHEL | At CITY GARAGE, 13401/2 Fourth St. (alley), Santa Monica | Runs through July 20