THEATER REVIEW: Game cast wrings a few giggles from Barn’s ‘Nerd’

IF PLAYWRIGHT LARRY SHUE were still alive, he might have decided that he no longer wants to confess to having created “The Nerd.” But beyond that, one may wonder why his name appears nowhere on the title page of Theater Barn’s program. Hmmm.

The plot of his play involves an extremely peculiar person who 1) moves into an architect’s home, 2) ruins his life, and 3) will probably never leave—unless whacky, desperate measures from the architect’s friends ensue. They ensue. And those desperate measures take the term “whacky” to new depths and high decibels.

In this production, the extremely peculiar person is played by Brett Epstein. Epstein has one of those wonderful faces that leaps off the stage and could, if asked, zoom to the last row of an amphitheater. The actor makes full use of it to make a nice/irritating, reality-based cartoon out of his character. For the role, he has also adopted the body language of a seven-year-old girl. If this were a solo gig, it could really work. But Epstein has six other actors on stage with him—actors who are obviously striving for more naturalistic characterizations, and the conflict of styles can be difficult to watch. The play does in fact strain that theater axiom: to have fun, audiences must be able to suspend disbelief. This watcher had difficulty suspending.

Photo contributed Brett Epstein plays the title role in the Theater Barn production of the Larry Shue comedy “The Nerd” at the New Lebanon stage through July 1.

The problem seems built into the script, so probably one should not blame director Phil Rice unless he colluded in the choice of the play.

Among especially effective actors is Jean Garner as Clelia. She plays the self-effacing wife of a wealthy businessman. Her sweet haplessness shines. Her habit of carefully smashing saucers in order to relieve her own psychic anxiety is a gem-element of the evening. As the architect’s intervening friend, Adam Giannone as Axel (a drama critic) knows how to deliver a witticism. Getting a charmingly rotten kid into the cast seems to be Shue’s only reason for the character of Thor. But Thor is played here by third-grader Mason Hutchinson with an appealing, uninhibited kid-energy.

Some incidentals:

Costume designer David Louder dresses Epstein wonderfully. Director Rice has subtle, interesting taste in the music he chooses for before and between acts. (It’s worth attending to.) And Cara Moretto is graceful, lovely and real in the rather thankless role of Tansy.

But the excuse for paying money to see this play comes from a few genuinely witty lines and some serial outrageousness resulting in extended audience belly-jiggles. It is almost worth the price when the nerd joins some aggressive silliness intended to drive him away—and then evolves into the leader of those activities! So homo-sapiens!

Laughter is a very good human occupation, and summer theaters are often tempted by scripts that promise—and even partially deliver to their audiences that very good thing; but Theater Barn has all the resources for more delicious or more demanding fare. Two delicious ones are coming up: the musicals “She Loves Me” (by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joe Masteroff) and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” (by Rachel Sheinkin & William Finn).

Get tickets at (518) 794-8989.

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