Rick (Sam King), the Nerd, describing his very inappropriate marriage proposal to a shocked Waldgrave (Tom Wyner), Clelia (Julie Excell) and Tansy (Sophia Palosaari). - Photo by Jenny Graham

Strong cast delivers in OSW's brutally funny 'Nerd'

What if you owed your life to the most annoying nerd in the world? And he moved in on you? And you were trying to do the right thing?

That's the premise of Larry Shue's hilarious "The Nerd." In the new production of this much-produced play that opened Thursday night at Oregon Stage Works, Sam King, plays Rick Steadman, a nerd's nerd.

His glasses sporting a wad of tape, his pocket protector hosting a clutch of ballpoints, his high-water pants hiked up to reveal a pair of brown sneakers, Rick is to the world what fingernails are to a blackboard.

Rick doesn't speak, he brays. He is learning to play the tambourine, song by corny old song. He imitates James Stewart in "Harvey," badly. And everything he does, he does close up, in your face, with stops-out gusto.

You'd wanna kill him. And so does everybody else in this uproarious little caper ably directed by Doug Rowe. And that's the problem, since Rick saved the life of struggling young architect Willum Cubbert (Jackson Campbell) when both were soldiers in the Gulf War (an update of Shue's play, where they were in Vietnam).

And Willum later wrote to Rick, whom he never met (he was unconscious when saved), that he'd always have a place to go.

It's a fabulous performance by King as Rick, who doesn't even enter until nearly a half-hour into the first act, during which time we are introduced at length to the other characters.

Willum is an earnest young man who dreams of being a great architect but perhaps lacks a certain gumption.

His sometime girlfriend Tansy McGinnis (Sophia Palosaari) cares for him but sees his shortcomings and has a dream of her own. Pal Axel Hammond (Greg Younger) is an acid-tongued theater critic whose job it is to crack wise.

Shue, who died in a 1985 plane crash leaving just a handful of plays, appears to have honed his comic chops on old-time TV sit-coms. Consider a visit by Willum's only important client, the blustery "Ticky" Waldgrave (Tom Wyner) and his dysfunctional family, wife Clelia (Julie Excell), who smashes dinnerware when angry, and son Thor, who demands to be paid money to behave. The event is of course sabotaged comically by Rick.

As this unfolds, you realize you could almost be watching Ralph and Alice Kramden, with Ralph's pal Ed Norton doing the Rick part.

All this is for the most part laugh-til-you-hurt funny, although an absurd game Rick calls "Shoes and Socks," amusing at first, goes on a bit long and becomes strained.

The second act is given over to Axel's plan to free Willum by driving Rick off through a series of outlandish pranks. But it turns out that Rick embraces things that would horrify anybody else. A main course of cottage cheese and warm water? Yum. Preposterous rituals of dancing around spouting mumbo-jumbo? Terrific. And so on.

What's Willum to do?

With sharp direction and a strong cast throughout, almost all of this works. While "The Nerd" spends most of its time seeming to be without any point other than laughter, the time spent developing the other characters before Rick's entrance, and in particular the Willum-Tansy relationship, might suggest to the alert playgoer that something more than plain yuks is afoot. You're unlikely to see this fully until Shue throws in a brilliant twist and the tumblers fall into the lock.

There is an element of cruelty in humor, especially laughter at a weird character's expense, but if you have a problem here, the twist pretty much takes care of that, too.

Oregon Stage Works is best-known for producing heavyweight stuff such as Martin McDonagh's "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" and Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen." But the last time OSW saw overflow crowds was probably "The Great American Trailer Park Musical." Does escapist comedy flourish in tough times? I don't know, but there is an appetite for it.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail

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