By Mary Boyle
Regulars at The Rep may remember a hysterically funny play last produced in their 2016/17 season called The Foreigner. Larry Shue, who was a playwright-in-residence at The Rep back in the late 1970's and early 80's, created two plays that made their World Premiere at The Rep, The Foreigner being one of them, which brought both Shue and The Rep into the spotlight. Tragically, Shue died in an airplane accident at the age of 39, leaving his two World Premiere works as both his and The Rep's legacy. His other work, THE NERD, which was first unveiled at The Rep back in their 1980/81 season, will now have its fourth production, and it is just the ticket if you are in need of a good laugh.
Directed by JC Clementz, who makes his Quadracci Powerhouse directing debut, The Nerd takes place in Terre Haute, Indiana in the 1970's at the home of Willum Cubbert (Andy Nagraj), an architect whose good friends, Tansy (Alex Keiper) and Axel (Jeremy Peter Johnson), are throwing him a surprise birthday party. Tansy is actually more than a friend but, since she's accepting a new job that will take her to Washington D.C., she's trying to gently remove herself from her relationship with Willum. Unfortunately, the only guests to show up at the party are Willum's current boss, Warnock Walgrave (Chris Mixon), along with his odd wife, Clelia (Lilian Castillo), and his obnoxious son, Thor (Charlie Cornell/Damon McCoy), so Willum is excited when he discovers a message on his answering machine that Rick Steadman (Michael Doherty), a man who saved his life in Vietnam but who he'd never actually met in person, was planning to attend the party. Of course, from the moment Rick arrives, everything begins to go wrong, and Willum finds himself with saddled with a new roommate he is forever indebted to, yet can't stand to be in the same room with.
My first experience with Michael Doherty was in The Rep's 2015 40th Anniversary production of A Christmas Carol, where he played a generally unnoticed character called Mr. Topper ... except, Doherty made him quite noticeable, and incredibly funny. Of course, it helps that he looks a lot like the character Dwight Schrute from the popular sitcom "The Office," and that comparison really works well in this production, too. Doherty is so awkward it almost hurts to watch him, but so brilliant you can't look away. A large part of what's amazing about this production, though, is that his castmates can keep a straight face through it all. Jeremy Peter Johnson, who makes his Rep debut as Axel, is sublimely witty in his own right (and absolutely unrecognizable from his recent role as Jud Fry in Skylight Music Theatre's Oklahoma), while Andy Nagraj, as Willem, is convincingly flustered by his new friend's antics. I would be remiss if I didn't mention the scene-stealer of the show, Lillian Castillo, who also earned that title in last season's In the Heights at The Rep – she's simply amazing to watch. Chris Mixon delivers a worthy Rep debut as Mr. Waldgrave, as well. However, Alex Keiper, who was in last season's Ring of Fire at The Rep and plays Tansy, may be the most unflappable, since she married Michael Doherty just before the show opened.
I must admit that I almost couldn't take this show. The truth is, I do not handle farce very well. Luckily, I'm not the type to get up and walk out, or I would have missed the amazing twist that occurred at the very point when I thought I couldn't stand the silliness of it all any longer. Obviously, I can't reveal it here, but let's just say it's like the film Dumb and Dumber or Meet the Fockers was somehow completely redeemed in the last 15 minutes. Hysterical and witty, yet surprisingly sweet and incredibly brilliant; Larry Shue might not have been here for long, but his plays most certainly will be. Quite a legacy, indeed.
The Nerd runs through December 15th at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater, located within the Patty & Jay Baker Theater Complex at 108 E. Wells St. in Milwaukee. Tickets can be purchased by calling (414) 224-9490, in-person at the Box Office, or online at www.MilwaukeeRep.com.
About The Milwaukee Rep
Milwaukee Rep is the largest performing arts organization in Wisconsin in terms of audiences served and one of the largest professional theaters in the country. Each year, Milwaukee Rep welcomes up to 275,000 people at nearly 700 performances of 15 productions ranging from compelling dramas, powerful classics, new plays and full-scale musicals in its three unique performance venues–the Quadracci Powerhouse, Stiemke Studio and Stackner Cabaret. For over 65 years, Milwaukee Rep has gained a national reputation as an incubator of new work, an agent of community change and a forward-thinking provider of vital arts education programs. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Mark Clements and Executive Director Chad Bauman, Milwaukee Repertory Theater ignites positive change in the cultural, social, and economic vitality of its community by creating world-class theater experiences that entertain, provoke, and inspire meaningful dialogue among an audience representative of Milwaukee’s rich diversity.