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Photograph by Dana Grover

Home Wrecker: Drew Campbell's nerd drums up plenty of trouble with his hosts Lucinda Dobinson and Dale Spafford.

Gags Reflex

Northside Theatre Co. welcomes 'The Nerd' who wouldn't leave

By Marianne Messina

NORTHSIDE THEATRE Company's current show, The Nerd, puts an '80s spin on the unwanted house-guest device when a Wisconsin bumpkin chalk inspector named Rick Steadman (Drew Campbell) visits the man whose life he saved in Vietnam, up-and-coming architect Willum Cubbert (Dale Spafford). Campbell plays his gremlinesque part with all the appeal of the Great White North's McKenzie brothers meet Kermit the Frog, a delightful portrayal that carries some of the play's structural lapses.

In that department, Larry Shue's script could use more visual or verbal counterpoint. Instead, he puts monologues in the middle of party scenes where suddenly everyone drops silent to listen. The company can't always close these gaps. Willum recounts the story of Rick's obnoxious behavior in a commuter plane, and although the punch line is hilarious, the setup--his two speechless auditors are on opposite sides of the living-room stage set--is long and thin.

That said, there are some very funny gags and characters in this play. For example, the cynical but true friend Axel Hammond (Larry Barrott gives him a smooth charm) holds clever conversations with his Jack Daniels bottle: "Have you had anything to eat yet? How about my stomach lining?" The disingenuous relationship between Willum and his boss, Warnock Waldgrave (a perpetually disgruntled David Schreiber), creates humorous exchanges. As they look at Willum's building designs, Waldgrave points to the decorative moldings Willum considers "creative" and says, "Just get rid of all that junk around there, and we're in business."

Waldgrave's wife, Clelia (a slightly overwrought Valerie Singer), informs the audience, with hyperbolic sign language, that she "teaches slo-o-o-w learners." Clelia, we soon find out, is a repressed hysteric. "Do you have anything I could break?" she asks the bewildered hostess, Tansy (Lucinda Dobinson). "I usually carry those little Woolworth saucers." (She also carries a small hammer and wraps the saucer in a towel for neat, controlled smashing.)

The party scene grows livelier every time the ebullient Alicia Singer as little Thora Waldgrave storms the stage with her unbridled brat behavior. Sometimes, even the speakerphone becomes a central character, and thanks to Seth Kane and James Lucas on sound, the recorded sides of phone conversations blend crisply into the live acting.

At the performance I attended, it took until the second half of the play for everyone to limber up. Spafford's Willum is eminently warmer, more accessible and loose after the intermission. And curiously, as he becomes more sympathetic, he also becomes funnier. The action gets really silly when the trio of friends--Axel, Willum and Tansy (Willum's love interest)--try to make Rick feel so out of place that he'll leave of his own accord. One of the funniest moments comes when Tansy brings out an apple core on a serving dish, and they explain to Rick that tradition won't let them eat dinner until they've watched the apple core turn brown. As goofy as some of the gags get, The Nerd somehow hits the funny bone at just the right angle, and by the time the stupid-people tricks of the second act arrive, you're primed for the kind of laughter that spurts out against all better judgment.

The Nerd, a Northside Theatre Company production, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm through May 2 at 848 E. William St., San Jose. Tickets are $12/$14. (408.288.7820)

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From the April 21-27, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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