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'Nerd' an Agonizingly Funny Social Horror Show

May 2016

Worcester Telegram & Gazette
May 2016

NORTHBRIDGE — Rick Steadman, the titular character in Larry Shue’s “The Nerd,” is a horror show of distressingly funny social sabotage. Jeremy Woloski played him 10 years ago at Stageloft Repertory Theater, and he’s reprising him again in Braid Productions’ potently comic production, which opened at the Singh Performance Center in Whitinsville Friday night for a two-weekend run.

And once again, Woloski’s portrayal of the most annoying nerd the world has ever known is a triumph of hilariously communicative malfunction, the toxic sun around which all the other unfortunate characters that populate “The Nerd” revolve with alarmist helplessness.

That would include Willum Cubbert (Tim Nichols), a morose, diffident architect intimidated by his hotel building client, Warnock “Ticky” Waldgrave (Erik Johnson). On his 34th birthday, which he plans to celebrate by throwing a dinner party for Waldgrave and his family — wife Clelia (Emma Jayne Gruttadauria) and daughter Athena (Ella Woloski) — Willum receives a phone message out of the blue on his answering machine from Rick, who says he’s coming to town to pay Willum a visit. Willum is thrilled because Rick saved his life in Vietnam, and Willum has promised him in subsequent letter correspondence that he’d do anything for him in return for his life-saving heroism.

What’s especially intriguing, since Willum was unconscious when Rick pulled him to safety, is that he’s never actually met Rick and is excited to finally meet him. So are his girlfriend, Tansy McGinnis (Vivian Nichols), and their mutual best friend, Alexis Hammond (Courtney Rubio). Even though Willum is in love with Tansy, he’s commitment phobic and his lack of gumption has firmed Tansy’s plans to leave her weather forecasting job in hinterland Terra Haute, Indiana, for a choice upgrade in Washington, D.C.

Alexis is a piquant drama critic, who plays a very important role in eventually resolving the roadblock in her dear friends’ relationship inertia, but to give away that sleight of hand would be unthinkable.

What must be said, with a hearty tip of the hat to Neal Martel’s subversively effective direction, is that Jeremy Woloski dominates “The Nerd” like a human weapon of mass destruction, verbally waterboarding everyone in his path, with head-bashing cognitive dysfunction, into various forms of shell-shocked submission.

Athena Waldgrave is the first victim he traumatizes, when she opens the front door to the sight of Rick wearing a T-Rex, teeth-bearing head and accessorized with vicious-looking talons and flouncing lizard tail. Quite an introduction for a little girl who has already declared her status as a full-fledged brat, by kicking her father in the shins, complaining about being bored and eyeing the huge bowl of icky looking potato salad with voluble disgust. No one else is around when she runs screaming into the closet in sheer terror, much like when Drew Barrymore’s Gertie first lays eyes on E.T.

It’s the first of many exceedingly distressful moments for the young lady, and Ella Woloksi is probably the most disarmingly endearing “brat” in the annals of local community theater. Apparently, talent runs deep in the Woloski household. A future production of “Annie” should be on Miss Woloksi’s wish list.

The escalating, inimical relationship between Rick and Warnock Waldgrave, one that Woloski and Johnson
embody with scathingly funny results, is a sideshow unto itself. It’s a comic battle royal between the socially atonal, oblivious nerd, and the stuffy, pompous business mogul driven to the brink of outraged hysteria, one that is fully consummated when Rick blows cigarette smoke through the chimney in “Ticky’s” hotel visual design. Another high point is Rick inadvertently spitting bits of hard-boiled eggs all over Willum’s face, while rambling on in a language only he can fully understand.

Tim Nichols is endearingly amusing in the somewhat geeky, nebbish role of the beleaguered Willum. Vivian Nichols does her best to flesh out the quietly written character of Tansy, imbuing the role with supportive, understated emotion. Rubio brings a slangy, low-key wit to the part of Alexis. Gruttadauria plays the tension-addled, teacup-smashing Clelia with fine, discombobulated eccentricity.

Martel’s set design is an adroitly cluttered living room, replete with an architect’s drafting table and a signed photo of former "Today Show" hosts Hugh Downs resting on the fireplace mantle. The perfect place for Rick to overstay his extenuated visit with a laugh-inducing vengeance.

By Paul Kolas