'The Nerd' comes to Janesville Performing Arts Center

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Ann Fiore
Wednesday, November 6, 2013

JANESVILLE—Nerds are so popular these days, they plan their own comic book conventions and manage their own Web channels.

Not so in the 1970s and '80s, before Comic-Con and Nerdist podcasts made nerds cool. In those days, having a socially inept friend could drive a guy nearly insane—especially if said guy owed his life to a nerd.

Consider that an introduction to “The Nerd,” a 1981 comedy written by Larry Shue. Janesville Little Theatre brings it to the Janesville Performing Arts Center on Nov. 15-17 and 22-24.

“It's the funniest play I've ever directed,” said Elsie Van Tassell, who is directing the show for JLT for the second time. “The situations in it are just hilarious.”

“The Nerd” follows the story of Willum Cubbert, a young architect who is a landlord to two friends, Tansy McGinnis and Axel Hammond.

Tansy is moving to Washington, D.C., for a new job. Willum loves her but is afraid to cut ties in Terre Haute, Ind., where they all live. Axel, an acerbic drama critic, is doing his best to help his friends resolve their futures.

Enter Rick Steadman, who walks into one of Willum's parties. Rick once saved Willum's life in Vietnam, and they've kept in touch. Willum has told Rick that he's welcome to visit anytime in Terre Haute.

Problem is, Rick is a nerd, and he's there to stay.

Louis Sather, who plays Willum's friend Axel, likes the play so much that he drives from Madison to Janesville several times a week for rehearsals.

“'The Nerd' was the first show I ever saw on Broadway, back in 1987,” Sather said. “I absolutely fell in love with the show.”

The comedy stems from all the misery Rick causes Willum, Sather said.

“He is just so outrageous. He's just this big nerd—the worst houseguest you can ever imagine.”

Rick insists on traveling with Willum for work and then makes a scene on the plane. He likes to practice the tambourine while singing off-key. He leads a goofy party game in which Willum's guests have to remove their footwear and put bags over their heads.

The audience probably will understand when nice-guy Willum finally cracks.

“You just hate him,” Van Tassell said of Rick. “He's just awful. Everything he does, he does wrong.”

“The Nerd” was first performed in Milwaukee in 1981, when Shue was the playwright-in-residence at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

He died in a plane crash in 1985, so he never got to see the play on Broadway.

The year before his death, Shue told the Los Angeles Times in an interview that the characters in “The Nerd” had an element of his own personality that he called “my dream that the wishy-washy nice guy will emerge triumphant.”

Last updated: 10:09 pm Wednesday, November 6, 2013

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