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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, November 4, 2010

The Guilderland Players induce “side-splitting laughter”
as “really quirky and interesting people” bring The Nerd to life

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Making people laugh can be hard work.

Putting on a comedy like Larry Shue’s The Nerd — “a spring tonic of side-bruising laughter,” wrote The Milwaukee Tribune when the play premiered in 1981 — takes a cast that can work together with impeccable timing. Details that surge along in a seeming stream of hilarity actually need to be carefully choreographed.

Guilderland High School students are rising to the occasion with verve for a production that will play this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

The Nerd was written by Shue, a Midwesterner who, after serving stateside during the Vietnam War, wrote for and acted with the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. The play went from Milwaukee to London’s West End and then to Broadway for a long run. Shue wrote another popular comedy, The Foreigner, before dying in a 1985 plane crash.

Shue said about the effect of his comedies on audiences, “You have tired, neurotic people filing in and you have kids coming out giggling and flirting.”

Andy Maycock, a Guilderland English teacher who has directed the school’s plays for years, picked The Nerd, he said, because it’s “really funny.”

He went on, “At auditions, I wound up with really quirky and interesting people who have good instincts.”

Those instincts have been fine-tuned in rehearsals.

The play opens in the home of a Terre Haute architect on his 34th birthday. His best friend, Axel, a sardonic theater critic (played by Josh Palagyi); and his girlfriend, Tansy (Casey-Ann Morris), who plans to move in a week to Washington, D.C. for a plum job as a weather girl, are throwing him a party.

The architect, Willum Cubbert (Bobby Ruggles), gets a call from a man who saved his life in Vietnam, Rick Steadman (Daniel Ferris). Willum was unconscious when Rick dragged him to safety and never saw his rescuer, but he has corresponded with him and told him he would do anything for him.

“He’s a nerd,” said Maycock, describing Rick’s character. “He has no social graces whatsoever. He stands too close; he has toilet paper dragging from one foot….Things go from bad to worse.”

At the party, the guests are eating deviled eggs from a platter.

“It’s hard to believe, not too long ago, these were inside of some birds,” says Ferris in a voice filled with child-like wonder and exuberance.

The guests cover their mouths in horror.

Maycock is looking for broader slapstick.

“I need more projectiles,” he says at Monday’s rehearsal.

“Actually spit them out?” asks Ruggles.

“Get it on the audience,” says Palagyi.

Maycock nods yes, and asks Ferris if there is “an egg song” he can sing as he reaches for an hors d’oeuvre.

Palagyi suggests “Scrambled Eggs.”

In replaying the scene, Ferris nonchalantly sings as he picks up his egg while the other guests delicately nibble on their snacks. Then Ferris delivers his line and the yolks fly along with the jokes.

A good guy or a godless party pooper?

Following Willum’s lead — a role that originally went to the playwright — the party guests try to make up for the nerd’s social shortcomings. Asked if he has a girlfriend, Rick says he once proposed to a girl in elementary school. He describes making her a necklace of Cheerios and asking her to marry him.

Clelia Waldgrave (played by Alessandra Cerio) says that’s sweet as she sidles up to Rick. She asks how old the girl was.

“She was only about 8,” replies the nerd.

“And how old were you?” asks Celia, described in the play as “a picture of tasteful, studied patience.”

“Thirty,” replies the nerd, unaware of the effect this has on his listeners.

As a parlor game goes awry and social missteps become too frequent to bear, the group finally agrees to a game of the nerd’s choosing. They take off their shoes and socks, as he instructs them to do, and place paper bags over their heads while the nerd hides their footwear.

Warnock Waldgrave, played with passion by Alex Dvorscak, smolders with rage as he hands over his $100 shoes. He finally can take it no more when Rick instructs him to put his fingers in his ears and hum.

“I own eight hotels,” he blusters.

Willum, who is designing Waldgrave’s newest hotel, offers to do away with the moldings he had planned if his client will go along with the game. Waldgrave agrees as long as Willum “gets rid of all that old-fashioned junk.”

Next, the nerd says he’ll read from the any part of the Bible until there is mention of shoes or socks.

“Rick, I don’t think I own a Bible,” says Willum in a beseeching tone.

“What do you think this is — the Ramada?” quips Axel.

“Don’t you believe in God?” says a horrified Rick, a question Willum says he won’t get into with a bag on his head.

“Is that what I am — a godless party pooper?” he later asks his girlfriend.

She assures him he’s a “good guy” and is paying the price for it.

In the last act, Tansy and Axel host another party with Willum to impress Rick with the oddity of Terre Haute customs in an effort to drive him away. A surprise twist at the last minute allows for a happy ending.

The actors

Willum’s good-hearted sincerity fills up the stage at times. Ruggles, who has done a lot of community theater, concedes that he’s “kind of” playing himself.

“He’s a guy that would say ‘yes’ to anything,” says Ruggles of Willum. “He’s not a pushover, but he wants to make people happy,” 

Ruggles goes on, “Willum is this normal guy who’s depressed because his girlfriend’s leaving him. His work isn’t going well. Then Rick comes along and messes with his entire life. It’s a shock.”

Ruggles, who is a senior at Guilderland High School, worked over the summer as an aid at a school for children with special needs and behavioral problems. He had been thinking of pursing a culinary career but now is considering communication and speech pathology.

 “I was just so touched by them,” he said. “Working there has changed my life…Even if kids with behavioral problems punch you, I love them. You see a kid in there.”

Ruggles brings that attitude of forbearance to the part of Willum as he deals with Rick, until he finally reaches the breaking point.

Maycock describes Ruggles as an actor who has been very good in musicals and has “a sense of big theatrics.”

“For this show,” said Maycock, “he has to be very subdued, until he explodes at the end when he’s frustrated.”

Ferris, who pushes everyone’s buttons with aplomb, is making his stage debut as the nerd.

Maycock describes Ferris as “bright and willing with a really good sense of humor. He can interpret the meaning behind a scene. Since the first day, he’s been cracking us up,” said Maycock.

The director goes on, “He’s absolutely not playing himself…He’s an honors student and a charming kid.”

Maycock told Ferris at the start that he didn’t want an imitation of Family Matters’ Steve Urkel. “I want a nerd that’s specific, unusual, and different,” he told Ferris.

Ferris delivered.

The script says that Rick is from Wisconsin, so Ferris perfected a Yooper dialect, which, he explained, is from the Upper Peninsula (hence U.P. or Yooper) of Michigan and nearby Wisconsin. “It’s kind of Canadian,” he said.

“This is not a traditional nerd,” Ferris went on. “He has sweet and innocent moments. He’s just socially maladjusted; that’s the whole point.”

Although he hasn’t appeared on stage since he was in fifth grade, Ferris, now a junior, knows about plays from the inside. He loves English and wants to be a writer. He writes sci-fi and horror stories and is currently working on a screenplay about a taco place, similar to Good Burger, the 1997 Nickelodean comedy.

Although his character, Rick, sings in a screechy, grating way, Ferris himself is in a punk band, called The Darwins.

The joke was that the band was evolving but, he said, “We may change our name to The Clever One Liners.”

Maycock describes Axel, played by Josh Palagyi, as “like Jerry Seinfeld — not really ruffled by anything but irritated by it and mocking.”

A senior, Palagyi has played both lead and sidekick parts in Guilderland productions.

In this part, as the wisecracking theater critic and best friend of Willum, he often acts as a commentator on the bizarre goings-on. He ratchets up the hilarity in the final scene and is responsible for the hairpin turn at the end.

In playing Warnock Waldgrave, Alex Dvorscak manages to look fierce even with a paper bag on his head. According to the play, “The last time Mr. Waldgrave smiled was 47 years ago, and then it was gas.”

Alessandra Cerio, in playing his wife, Clelia, manages to keep a thin skin of social veneer in tact over some explosive situations.

“She’s too tightly wound for Rick, the nerd,” says Maycock, “and she gradually disintegrates.”

The Waldgraves’ 8-year-old son, Thor, is played with gusto by high school freshman Colum Cross.

Active in community theater, Cross has had many bit parts and played the lead, Ralphie, in A Christmas Story.

He is planning on a career as an entrepreneur.

It’s not hard for him to play a younger part in The Nerd, said Cross. “I just think of what I was like when I was 8 years old. I just wanted to play with Legos.”

“There are good little boys,” says the play. “There are also precocious little boys, which is to say bad little boys whom we can somehow find it in our hearts to forgive. Thor is neither. Thor is a monster.”

“I get into the part by raising my voice in tone and whining,” said Cross.

Casey-Ann Morris is constantly in character as Tansy McGinnis when she’s on stage; even when she has no lines or no part of the sometimes-overwhelming action, she is acting with her eyes and facial expressions.

She, too, has done a lot of community theater, and she has taken classes at the New York State Theatre Institute. A junior, she’d like to continue with theater.

“It’s just so much fun,” said Morris. “It’s really great to forget yourself for awhile and be someone else.”

“She plays a girl trying to keep Willum happy even though she feels she’s disappointed him,” said Maycock. “She plays a neat combination of the happy hostess, yet she’s falling apart, too.”

“I think she has mild OCD,” said Morris, referring to obsessive-compulsive disorder. “Everything has to be a certain way for Tansy.”

Moving from Terre Haute to Washington, D.C. would have been different for a long-distance romantic relationship in the 1980s than now, Morris surmises. “Now, you have cell phones and Skype,” she said. But for Tansy, in the 1980s, moving so far away from Willum meant the end of the relationship.

So funny it hurts

“Our hero learns something about himself,” said Maycock. “He has to stand up for himself.”

In the end, Willum announces he will “court Tansy till she cracks.”

Maycock predicts the show will be a hit with high school students and with their parents, too.

“There’s no upper limit to the age,” he said of audience members who would enjoy the show. “I spoke to a teacher who saw it years ago. She was in pain because it was so funny.”

Maycock concluded, in a deadpan voice, “Our goal is to cause pain.”


The Guilderland Players’ production of The Nerd opens at 7 p.m. on Nov. 4, 5, and 6 on the Guilderland High School stage. The school is located at 8 School Road in Guilderland Center.

Tickets at the door cost $5.

“The price hasn’t changed in a decade,” said Director Andy Maycock. “And it’s in 3D.”

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