When Laughter Rings True: Larry Shue’s The Nerd

Nearly forty years after its 1981 world premiere production with Milwaukee Rep, Larry Shue’s The Nerd has moved beyond its initial status as instant hit to become one of the most produced and best loved comedies in the history of American theater. Under JC Clementz’s direction, Milwaukee Rep’s fourth staging of Shue’s classic begins previews in the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater on November 12.

Set in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1979, The Nerd revolves around the relationship between one of theater’s oddest couples.

The title character is a Wisconsin factory inspector named Rick Steadman. While serving in Vietnam, Rick rescued fellow soldier Willum Cubbert, now a talented but unassuming architect. Willum has therefore long promised to do anything for Rick; as The Nerd begins, Rick is about to cash this IOU.

Rick is a tactless rube with no life; Willum is a nice-to-a-fault guy who’s life is in a rut. Rick is an unevolved linear thinker; Willum has a playful and vivid imagination. Rick is clueless and insensitive about people, places and things; Willum is so sensitive and attentive to others’ needs that he frequently ignores his own.

Little wonder that within a week of Rick showing up for a stay at Willum’s apartment, Willum is going out of his mind – while nevertheless afraid to tell this man who saved his life how he truly feels. That leaves Willum’s two best friends – a drama critic named Axel and a onetime flame named Tansy – to concoct a scheme to set Willum free.

L-R: Director JC Clementz with The Nerd 2019 cast members Lillian Castillo, Michael Doherty, Alex Keiper, Chris Mixon, Jeremy Peter Johnson and Andy Nagraj. Photo by Kevin Viol.

Why Stage The Nerd?

I’ve left out a few delicious plot twists so I don’t spoil the fun, but that’s the gist of Shue’s show. On the surface, it’s a frothy but fairly conventional drama. But to paraphrase a George Bernard Shaw quote, the question isn’t why stage The Nerd yet again. Given the play’s resounding and repeated success, the better question is “why not?”

In each of its first three Rep stagings – in the spring of 1981 at the Performing Arts Center (now the Marcus Center), in the spring of 1996 in the Quadracci Powerhouse, and in the spring of 2007 in the Stiemke Studio – The Nerd was a huge hit. The 2007 production remains the longest Rep run in the history of the Stiemke.

While Milwaukee was falling in love with The NerdThe Nerd was busy conquering the world.

When it closed after its run on London’s West End, Shue’s play had set a box office record for an American comedy. It ran for 441 performances on Broadway (starring Mark Hamill, of Star Wars fame). It’s been performed from Scandinavia to South Africa as well as in countries as far-flung as Germany, Japan and Mexico.

And the beat goes on. Dramatists Play Service, which holds the rights to the show, has licensed a whopping 763 productions of The Nerd in the past decade alone. “It’s a perennial for us,” DPS President Peter Hagen said to me, via email. “The play has always been in our Top Ten or Twenty most produced plays lists, year after year.” “Both The Nerdand [Shue’s other big hit] The Foreigner know no geographical boundaries,” Hagen continued.

In an historical moment during which it can seem that all we do is create boundaries to divide ourselves from each other, one certainly understands why people would want to transcend their differences and laugh together. “Right now people want to laugh,” Rep Artistic Director Mark Clements said recently, explaining why he chose to program The Nerd.

James Pickering as Rick in the world premiere production of The Nerd at Milwaukee Rep in 1981. Photo by Mark Avery.

A Tonic for Tough Times

But what’s the secret sauce that gives Shue’s humor such staying power?

Why do Shue’s lines repeatedly interrupt rehearsals involving professional actors, who find themselves laughing so hard that they can’t continue?

Why, in preparing to write this article, did a seasoned theater critic like yours truly – who has seen and reviewed multiple productions of The Nerd, while reading the script more times than he can count – once again find himself repeatedly laughing out loud late into the night while perusing Shue’s play?

In short, what makes The Nerd so funny?

“Damned if I know,” said James Pickering in a 1996 interview.

This, from the man who arguably knows more about The Nerd than anyone alive (Shue died in a commuter plane crash in 1985; he was just 39 years old).

As the original Rick, Pickering workshopped the play with Shue in Milwaukee Rep’s old Court Street Theater before appearing in the original 1981 Rep production at the PAC; the two men and their cast mates tinkered with the script throughout this period.

“Larry put pen to paper, but we all contributed,” Pickering said to me during a recent phone interview. “During the entire initial run, we’d be making changes. It was really exciting.” Pickering still considers his time playing Rick “as the most intense fun I’ve ever had on stage.”

Shue dedicated the published version of the play to Pickering, who would go on to give more than 200 performances as Rick before moving on to direct five productions of the play, including the 1996 and 2007 productions at Milwaukee Rep.

Pickering actually has some fairly developed ideas about what makes The Nerd work so well, and he takes strong issue with the notion that Shue’s play is just a string of sitcom jokes. It’s linguistically clever, coming from a man whose work consistently demonstrates a love of language and all the ways it can be bent. It features ingenious plot twists that first-time Nerd viewers (oh, how I envy you!) will never see coming. And, Pickering notes, it has heart.

“It manages an amazing balance between cruelty and kindness that’s very hard to achieve,” Pickering said to me. “It includes razor-sharp farce. But it’s also sweet in a way farce usually isn’t. Call it a benign theater of cruelty about love, loyalty, and loyalty that’s misplaced.”

Lee E. Ernst in the 1995/96 production of The Nerd. Photo by John Nienhuis.

How to be The Nerd in 2019

Preparing to direct this year’s Rep Nerd, Clementz is on the same page; like Pickering, he sees The Nerd as a play which adds up to far more than its dazzling run of one-liners.

Yes, Clementz is on record noting that “there’s a silliness to Larry Shue’s work that I just find delightful.”

But when I asked him whether and how The Nerd spoke to our moment in 2019, Clementz went deeper. Par for the course, from a talented director who has consistently impressed me with his ability to see the darkness on the edge of comedy.

Clementz intuitively grasps that beneath the laughs, good comedy almost invariably hurts because it speaks hard truths. (I’d love to see what Clementz could do with Neil Simon, who is slowly coming back into fashion as we come to better appreciate how deep some of his comedies actually are).

“Viewed one way, a synopsis of The Nerd would be pretty dark,” Clementz said.

“A man has returned from war and is stuck in life. He can’t make decisions. He has a family of friends who want to support him by pushing him in a direction that will allow him to move on, after returning from Vietnam as a wounded veteran.

“Sure, on one level the play is silly fun, but the underlying truth and pain are also there. I also want to explore those darker emotional undercurrents” – true to a country which, even today, still gets “stuck” as it wrestles with the physical and psychic scars brought home from Vietnam.

In plumbing these emotional undercurrents in Shue’s play, Clementz will further up the ante with some of his casting choices and textual interpretations.

Willum will be played by Andy Nagraj, a person of color with whom Clementz first teamed up for the 2013 Rep production of Forever Plaid; the two have since worked together at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, where Clementz is Casting Director.

Taking his cues from hints in Shue’s script, Clementz is also presenting Axel the drama critic (Jeremy Peter Johnson) as gay. That means that the trio of friends forming the beating heart of this play – Willum, Axel and Tansy (Alex Keiper) – are all marginalized outsiders. In 1979. In a sleepy town of 60,000 in downstate Indiana.

“Each of them feels like they need to be someone else to fit in,” Clementz noted. “They put up masks and walls because they feel like they must.”

Maybe, in other words, there’s a reason Willum bends over backward to be nice: He doesn’t really have a choice. As a non-white architect in rural Indiana in 1979, he’s competing for commissions within a system that’s already rigged against him.

Playwright Larry Shue in the world premiere production of The Nerd at Milwaukee Rep in 1981. Photo by Mark Avery.

Playing for Freedom

People of color like Willum trying to play by the rules must frequently don masks to fit in with the dominant culture. But while acting one sort of role can thereby be imprisoning, trying on different and more liberating roles can set one free.

Every actor – and Shue was one, playing Willum in the original production of The Nerd – intuitively knows this. So does Shue’s play, right down to the ground.

The Nerd contains a play within a play: Willum, Axel and Tansy rehearse and stage their own farce as part of their campaign to persuade Rick to leave town. (Rick will be played in the upcoming Rep production by Michael Doherty, who we’ve seen in Rep productions of RagtimeMan of La Mancha and A Christmas Carol).

“There’s an improvisational genius going on that’s part of the engine that drives the play,” Pickering said. He compared the role-playing in The Nerd to what happens in Shakespeare’s As You Like It – another play in which characters muster the courage to own and be their true selves by trying on roles.

Disguised, characters like Rosalind in As You Like It can discover who they really are, by saying what they actually feel. Disguised, we can all become superheroes, living our fantasies of our best selves – and then applying what we learn to our everyday lives.

The Nerd is a theater mainstay because the characters, weird as they can be, are relatable,” Clementz said, while noting that we all disguise ourselves at times, either to please others or to try on different versions of who we might yet become.

“This play speaks timeless truths about the human condition,” Clementz continued. “That’s why audiences go to the theater: they experience things there in a way they can’t get elsewhere.” With The Nerd, those audiences are also sure to laugh their way to truth. In a moment in which none of us are laughing enough – and in which truth is often in short supply – it’s a win-win.

Mike Fischer is a Milwaukee-based writer and dramaturg. A theater reviewer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for 15 years, he served as the paper’s chief drama critic from 2009-18. He is currently a member of the Advisory Company for Forward Theater in Madison.