Dumb and Dumber

Anyone looking for a little theatrical substance to carry him through the doldrums of summer isn't likely to find it in the Alley's production of The Nerd, Larry Shue's comedy about a houseguest who won't leave and the frivolous antics that follow. Like many actor/playwrights, Shue wrote a script that showcases character much more than it does story. Luckily, the Alley's ensemble meets the challenge Shue sets, though watching them make a little something out of a lot of nothing is the only reason to sit through this undeniably stupid play.

It seems to be fashionable to blast Midwesterners, particularly those from that great state of cheese, Wisconsin. (Though Shue, a former member of the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, may know his subject matter better than some Wisconsin-bashers.) Wisconsin is where the play's titular nerd, Rick Steadman, hails from. He's visiting Willum Cubbert, a man whose life he saved in a war. Cubbert is an architect in Terre Haute, Indiana, and his group of friends includes his would-be meteorologist girlfriend, Tansy, and a vituperative drama critic, Axel. Cubbert, who is meeting Steadman for the first time, feels obligated to put up with this horrific little man's perversities, among them farting and then waving about the offensive odor with a couch cushion; picking his nose and flinging the result; zipping his shirt into his fly; and leaving the bathroom with toilet paper stuck to his shoe.

The first act is The Carol Burnett Show on a bad day as Steadman drives poor, kind Cubbert insane, ruins an important business gathering and interferes with his answering machine. Clever, it's not. Physical comedy weighs in heavily, as do stereotypic supporting characters such as the uptight business man, his strange and repressed wife and their dreadful little boy.

Forget about resonance. The Nerd's main character is so awful, so completely repulsive, that he's difficult to sustain. Nonetheless, Noble Shropshire does just that. Bent over from what might be chronic osteoporosis, Shropshire beckons an odd spirit when he stands up to sing his favorite songs in a nasal Wisconsin drone. He seems malformed in body and soul. Sadly, Shue milks none of the pity that might be due this fellow, perhaps because making fun of him is so much easier.

The second act picks up some speed with Cubbert's clan attempting to shoo out Steadman by convincing him that Terre Haute has bizarre native rituals. The ploy doesn't work, of course, but it gives the ensemble the excuse for more silliness and high antics. That, and a pair of thickly taped horn-rimmed glasses, are the essence of this meager play. Still, as Tansy, Cubbert's nearest and dearest, Shelley Williams flies about the stage exercising damage control with shrill preciseness. And John Feltch is wonderfully right on with Axel, whose tight deadline doesn't allow him to see the second half of the plays he's supposed to review. Feltch tosses nasty humor while remaining blase in his detachment from the proceedings, and it works. Last Sunday night, though, he succumbed to the madness of Jeffrey Bean's Cubbert -- possessed at one point by the spirit of a wild pig -- and briefly broke out of character to laugh, much to the delight of the audience. Bean is as believable as his thinly written character allows, and his considerable talent for portraying utter despair serves the production strong points -- which, despite the riotously funny cast, are few.

Given the pap being presented this summer in the name of theater, perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that Scriptwriters/Houston's Ten by Ten 1996 offering of short plays is juvenile and thin, not to mention hot and whispery with fanning programs. (The next time the air conditioning goes out before a show begins, I'm considering it a sign and heading for the exit.) The evening's shortcomings, however, may be less the fault of the writers than the concept -- even seasoned pros have a hard time pulling off the ten-minute format, which requires writing a perfectly contained long scene that includes all the structural elements of a full-length play: exposition, climax and denouement. Like its literary partner, the short-short story, the ten-minute play seldom hits the mark, and this was sadly the case in nearly all of Ten by Ten.

Of the ten plays presented, only three rise somewhere above the level of watching a pottery class. The first is Lucie Scott Smith's Total, which opens with a scene between a father and daughter in the courtyard of a Thai hotel during a total eclipse. Quickly, and with deftly wrought emotion from David Rigg as the father and Katherine Jacob as the daughter, the audience learns that this duo's wife and mother was brutally murdered by a man who, though caught, wasn't sentenced to death. The father wants revenge; the daughter wants to understand her father's pain. Smith has a compelling conflict in the struggle between living in the past and dealing with the present, and it plays well -- until, that is, dad starts whining about how other countries know what to do with a killer, even if his own doesn't. Prompted by his ranting, a spirit appears in ceremonial Thai dress, offering him the opportunity to act on his desire for revenge.

What begins with promise in Total ends with bombast. The father begins to sound like a disgruntled professor at a lectern, and the daughter is virtually forgotten. Metaphors can be tricky in short pieces, but Smith at least does her audience the courtesy of not smacking them over the head with hers: the sun has been eclipsed for a few brief moments, and so has the father's sense of redemption. Despite its leanings toward a discourse on capital punishment, Total is a fairly well-conceived package.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the second play worth staying in your seat for ends the production's first half. Always head into intermission with a punch, they tell you in theater school, and the evening's producers have at least attempted that with Mary Elaine Lora's Animal Instincts, which concerns a lawyer and her boyfriend in the bedroom of a rent-controlled New York apartment. The lights come up on the boyfriend's disgusted uttering about the lawyer's cat. It's not a particularly inventive premise, but Lora's command of dialogue makes it an interesting one. Susan-the-lawyer (Ellen Suits) tries to persuade her beau (John Platt) that the cat, cleverly named "Kitty," is really his pet. One of the wonderful things about a little play such as Animal Instincts is that it demands that the audience participate in the absurdity of an argument over an obviously stuffed animal. When Platt complains that Kitty licks him, and that he finds this appalling, the audience is caught up in believing that the county-fair toy could indeed suddenly reach out and stick her gravelly tongue on Platt's ankle. The tension in the argument, however, runs out of steam. Boyfriend asks Susan to leave, she throws around some legalese about "tacit contracts" and the play ends abruptly, though not quite as abruptly as my patience.

Of the remaining plays (if "play" isn't too kind a term for skits that made me wish for a vaudeville hook), Norman Moise's We're Never Alone at least grapples with a shadow of psychology. Set in a foxhole, the action follows the buddy-familiarity that's encouraged by dodging bullets and mortar fire. Kid, played by David Dubowy, happens upon soldiers Jim (Colin Morgan) and Mac (Lew Temple) during an enemy blitz. Their foxhole isn't a bad place to end up, given that Mac is an entertaining kind of guy and Jim has a comforting sense of wisdom. Kid is best described as earnest (he carries a picture of his girl in his breast pocket), and Dubowy plays him with shiny hopefulness. Temple is endearing as Mac, the guy who can't wait to get back to Philadelphia and have a cold beer and a bowl of real chili, and as Jim, Morgan plays the perfect balance between the two other characters. The three form a bond, and the ensuing dialogue is often witty and genuine. Moise's play is touching, but again, the clumsy ending convinces me that ten minutes is not a fair test of anyone's ability to craft a story.

Of course, these are new plays, as the program and the smarmy preshow comments kept emphasizing, plays that are being developed. Too bad Scriptwriters didn't encourage new writers to write for the theater instead of for ten minutes.

The Nerd plays through July 28 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 228-8421.

Ten by Ten 1996 plays through July 20 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 707-5194.

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Megan Halverson