The funniest thing about “The Nerd,” which is currently playing at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, is the clothes. It’s set in Terre Haute, Ind., in 1979, and costume designer Leon Dobkowski finds all kinds of garish atrocities to clothe the actors in: plaid pants and ruffled shirts and wide ties, each chosen to achieve the maximum amount of clash. A gruff businessman wears a (gasp!) pink leisure suit.
The late Larry Shue’s 1981 play itself is, unfortunately, not as funny. Yes, I did laugh a few times, but that’s not much for a roughly two-hour play that is as crammed with jokes as a sitcom, or a “Saturday Night Live” skit. The story is not even close to believable, and I swear I knew exactly what the big final twist was going to be five minutes into the first act. Much of what is intended to be witty seems stale.
TANSY: Willum is wonderful; he’s talented, he’s the gentlest man I’ve ever known. He could use a little gumption, I think.
AXEL: “Gumption” … What is that? …
TANSY: Just something people have.
AXEL: I don’t think so. Not anymore. I think they found the cure.
TANSY: Here I am, fresh out of a relationship. …
AXEL: Fresh? It’s two years, Tansy, that’s what you call fresh? … I’ll remember never to send you out for seafood.
Here’s the premise. Nice-guy architect Willum (Colin Hanlon) should be happy: He’s celebrating his 34th birthday, and has finally landed a job that could really boost his career. But his relationship with aspiring television weather person Tansy (Kate Reinders) is threatened by her imminent move from Terre Haute to Washington, D.C., to work for a TV station there.
Their friend Axel (Zach Shaffer), whose job as a Terre Haute theater critic apparently doesn’t keep him very busy, hangs out with them constantly at Willum’s apartment, cracking droll jokes and offering advice.
Enter Rick (Jonathan Kite), who saved Willum’s life during the Vietnam War, but whom, improbably, Willum has never actually seen before (Rick saved his life while Willum was wounded and unconscious). They’ve corresponded, though, and Willum has told him to drop by whenever he wants. And so Rick does, and the war hero, it turns out, is a capital-N Nerd. Like, something out of the “Revenge of the Nerds” movies, but even worse. Plus he seems to be totally unaware of how off-the-charts annoying he is.
The nightmare gets worse. Once he sets foot in Rick’s apartment, he won’t leave. And Willum, who still feels indebted to him for saving his life, won’t make him.
Adding to the chaos is Willum’s humorless, glowering client Ticky (Stephen Wallem); Ticky’s high-strung wife Clelia (Ann Harada), who can relieve her stress only by breaking Willum’s plates (okay, that was pretty funny); and their cartoonishly obnoxious son, Thor (Hayden Bercy). They’ve come to Willum’s apartment, too, to help him celebrate his birthday, and Rick, in his bizarrely oblivious way, makes them suffer, too.
Will Willum ever get Rick to leave? Will he find a way to make his relationship with Tansy work? And will Axel ever fail to come up with a snarky, smirky joke for anything that happens in Willum’s apartment?
You can probably figure out the answers to the first two questions. And the answer to the last one, I assure you, is no.
I can’t fault the actors, who work hard to make the most of their flimsy material. And there’s no real reason to blame director Kevin Cahoon. “The Nerd” is, simply, a mediocre comedy. It’s amazing that with so many great new plays being written, all the time, this one is still being produced, 37 years after its debut.
“The Nerd” is at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through May 20. Visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.