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'The Nerd' Sets Sights On Laughs, First And Last

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Larry Rusinsky, Leighan Danner in AACT's production of Larry Shue's 'The Nerd.'

'The Nerd' sets sights on laughs, first and last

By: Christopher Potter

News Arts Writer

Larry Shue may be unique among modern American playwrights in his stagecraft credo: Just make ’em laugh.

That’s a major reason University of Michigan theater professor Charles Jackson is directing Shue’s “The Nerd" for Ann Arbor Civic Theatre.

“I love comedy,” admits Jackson, whose production opens Wednesday at Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre. “I’ve directed and acted in so many dramas and tragedies. I wanted to do something that just makes people laugh and have a good time, and not have to leave the theater wondering, ‘Did I get the message?’ ”

Shue and his work, including his most popular play, “The Foreigner,” remain enormously popular with audiences thanks to their straightahead comedy. That’s an achievement, considering this actor-tumed-playwright had penned only four shows at the time of his tragic death in a plane crash in 1985.

Jackson agrees, describing 1981’s “The Nerd” as “a lighthearted situation comedy” set in the teeming metropolis of Terre Haute, Ind. Architect Willum Cubbert (played by Larry Rusinsky) is a less than happy fellow since a rich and brutish client (R. Brian Falkner) doesn’t like his design for a proposed hotel. Worse, the would-be love of his life Tansy McGinnis (Leighann Danner) is about to split Terre Haute to become a Washington, D.C. weathercaster.

Willum’s also nervous about the imminent visit of Rick Steadman (Tom Underwood), who saved an unconscious Willum’s life in Vietnam but whom he’s never actually met. When dumb-cluck yokel Rick proves to be the house guest from hell - who has every intention of moving in with Willum - his panicked host and friends scheme an outlandish plot to get rid of the jerk - without hurting his feelings.

“Willum’s problem is he tries to accommodate everyone,” says Jackson. “He doesn’t want to step on people’s toes. He feels he should overlook everything Rick does, because it's the moral thing to do. After all, Rick saved his life. He tries to be a good guy, but you can take anything to extremes. And people take advantage of it.”

“The Nerd” co-stars Hal Wolfe, Margie Cohen and William Cederquist, who help form what Jackson calls “an almost perfect cast, people who seem perfect for their roles. They’ve found some very, very genuine moments and they’ve realized the meaning of the play.”

Yet Jackson calls the “The Nerd” risky, because “so much depends on good comic timing. So far, we’ve been deliberately playing it bigger and broader than we need to. We’ve been outlandish and we’ve been outrageous. Now we’ve got to start pulling back.

“I want to stay on the comic side of things, but at the same time the show has to be based on reality. No matter how outlandish the plot is or the situation they find themselves in, you still have to be able to identify with these human beings.”

Jackson thinks that’s easily doable. “Shue didn’t write this just to split your sides with a bunch of gags, although there are terrifically funny moments. He also lets you empathize with his characters and understand them. I think we all have relatives or friends who are a little bit eccentric.”

The director calls the play “a good actor’s piece, and also a play that can establish a real communion with the audience. As the audience laughs, the actors will enjoy it more. I anticipate this being a lot of fun.”

“The Nerd" will run Thursday through Saturday at Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre in The University of Michigan League, 911 N. University Ave. Curtain each evening is 8 p.m., and there is a 2 p.m. matinee Saturday. For tickets, call 763-1085.