Belleville's Mike Wells mines the laughs in 'The Nerd'

For the News-DemocratMay 7, 2014 

Hilarity ensues in the madcap farce "The Nerd," thanks to a starmaking performance by Belleville's own Mike Wells as the house guest from hell, and a taut ensemble who earns the laughs.

The setting is young architect Willum Cubbert's home in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1979. He rents rooms to his best pals Axel, an acerbic newspaper drama critic, and Tansy, who is moving soon to be a TV weather girl (they were called that back in the day) in Washington D.C.

They are hosting a dinner party for Willum's birthday, and have invited his pompous boss, a hotel chain owner nicknamed "Ticky," his high-strung wife Clelia and their bratty son Thor. As if their antics aren't amusing enough, along comes Rick Steadman, who saved Willum's life in Vietnam. He leaves a message on the answering machine that he's coming for a visit. And then makes himself at home for an extended period, disrupting everyone's life.

Willum had never seen the guy before because he was unconscious when pulled to safety, only corresponding for years. He's excited, but his gratitude soon turns to stress and guilt because his life-saver is a high-maintenance handful.

Adorned as a stereotypical nerd with the classic taped-together classes and high-water, high-waisted trousers, Wells adopts a squeaky, nasally vocal tone to play this annoying man-child with bizarre habits and awkward social skills. His physical movements are so funny your sides will ache, particularly as he tries to get comfortable on a couch.

A natural cut-up on community theater stages, Wells appeared last fall in Stray Dog's "Evil Dead: The Musical," and this Dramatic License Production is only his second professional role in St. Louis.

Director John Contini drew out the eccentric personalities as he fluidly orchestrated the shenanigans. His son, Jason Contini, is convincing as the nice guy trying not to hurt Rick's feelings, but the unrequited romance subplot isn't as developed because of the dominating Thing That Wouldn't Leave. Willum should have make a move on Tansy by now, but has held back, and it may be too late.

Taylor Pietz is sweet and sincere as the standard '80s ingenue in a Pam Dawber way, but the couple's chemistry isn't obvious.

Bringing to mind a classy but smart-aleck 1940s movie sidekick, B. Weller is strong as the erudite cynic who provides an edge with escalating wisecracks.

John Reidy, Nicole Angeli and Hayden Benbenek are solid as the Waldgraves, but the kid character (Axel describes him as "the poster child for Planned Parenthood"), just doesn't work in this show.

The first act is very funny, capped by a zany "Socks and Shoes" parlor game, but the silliness can't be sustained in the second act. Although the cast's energy never waivers, and their comic timing is crisp, the plot gets increasingly ridiculous.

Any resemblance to "The Man Who Came to Dinner" is intentional, and the piece also brings to mind sitcoms of playwright Larry Shue's era. And what is with these weird names?

In 1981, this two-act comedy was produced by the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre Company, where Shue was playwright-in-residence, then starred Rowan Atkinson ("Mr. Bean") as the hapless Steadman in London's West End, and also ran on Broadway slightly more than a year.

He wrote "The Foreigner" two years later, harvesting comic gold, but alas, Shue perished in a commuter plane crash in 1985; he was 39.

"The Nerd" stretches credibility and wears thin, but the overall absurdity will wring many laughs out of a willing audience. The cast works hard to entertain, and they convey a natural rapport.

Tucked into an inviting space in the Chesterfield Mall, DLP has skilled people on its team. Kyra Bishop's set design evokes that late '70s, early '80s period of autumnal hues and earth tones, while costume designer Lisa Hazelhorst found brightly colored vintage polyester outfits. Kevin Miko of Belleville designed the sound, which was trickier than most shows with all the answering machine messages.

"The Nerd"

When: Now through May 18

Who: Dramatic License Productions

Where: The theatre is on the upper level of Chesterfield Mall (near Sears and across from Houlihan's Restaurant).

For more information, call 636-220-7012 or visit dramaticlicenseproductions.org.

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