Like Larry Shue's "The Foreigner," which had an unaccountably long run Off-Broadway, his earlier play "The Nerd" (which had an unaccountably long run in London), relies on an air of high school hijinx.
The play is about a group of friends (unaccountably named Willum, Tansy and Axel) who are visited by a man Willum has never met, but who saved his life in Vietnam. He at least has a reasonable name: Rick. (The other characters are Warnock, Clelia and Thor.)
Rick is indeed moronic enough to deserve the title "nerd," though it apparently never occurs to anyone (not even Axel, who must be extremely shrewd and perceptive since he is a drama critic) to question how someone so idiotic could have been capable of great bravery.
The Vietnam episode, in fact, is never even discussed, which is odd given the fact this is the two men's first meeting.
I won't reveal the reason for this or other unaccountable turns of plot, because it would spoil the play's "surprise" - though any script with such consistent lack of plausibility ill-deserves such consideration. The silly twists here recall that most contrived of '50s sitcoms, "The Stu Erwin Show."
Shue's sense of humor reminded me of jokes in the high school cafeteria. Sample: "You're a hard man, Axel." "Am I good to find?" Second sample: "This is a desparate situation - it calls for something infantile."
Occasionally there are amusing non sequiturs, but on the whole Shue's appeal seems to be his childlike belief that if you are a clever actor you can fool the world into being a better place.
If all plays were as skillfully acted as "The Nerd," New York would certainly be a better place. Peter Riegert is especially droll as the dry critic, Robert Joy is suitably goony as the nerd, and Mark Hamill is extremely likeable as the nerd's hapless host. Patricia Kalember is charming in the inocuous role of Hamill's girlfriend. The other roles are smartly played.
Charles Nelson Reilly has staged this adolescent farce with great polish, and John Lee Beatty has designed a set that makes Terre Haute, Ind., seem quite alluring. If only this energy had gone into a worthwhile play.
To portray boredom and not be boring is one of the classic conundrums of art. By the same token, to write about a nerd and not be nerdish, or even nerdlike, was the task undertaken by Larry Shue in his play, uncompromisingly called "The Nerd," which opened last night at the Helen Hayes Theater.
The play, written by the man who, before his untimely death in a plane crash had also written "The Foreigner," was a popular, if not critical, success in London a couple of seasons back, when it starred Rowan Atkinson.
It is not - by any means - a good play. It is nerdlike, or even nerdish. It made me want to scream with agony - although, in fairness, many of the preview audience sharing this experience were, to all appearances, screaming with laughter.
A case, perhaps, of different screams for different strokes for different folks.
It takes place in Terre Haute, Ind., a town where they doubtless know a nerd when they see one. Willum Cubbert (Mark Hamill) is a youngish architect who has everything going for him except that reliant common sense that the playwright terms gumption and which Shue associates with the old movie star Marjorie Main.
Willum has two friends - his girl Tansy (Patricia Kalember), who is about to desert him to become a TV weatherperson in Washington, D.C., and Axel (Peter Riegert), a sour-mouthed, smart-assed, alcoholic drama critic.
Some years ago, when Willum was serving in Vietnam, his life was saved by a stranger, Rick Steadman (Robert Joy), who, although wounded himself, dragged Willum's body back to camp.
Willum has woken up in base hospital in Tokyo, wondering what had hit him. He never met his savior, but they corresponded, and Willum assured Rick that if there was ever anything he could do for him - anything at all - he only had to ask.
So now it is Willum's 34th birthday. He is feeling the first intimations of male menopause, he suspects he is being investigated by the IRS for audit, his girlfriend is going off, and his hotelier client (Wayne Tippit) is bullying Willum to betray his architectural ideals and turn his hotel design into something looking like something between a box and an air-conditioner.
Willum thinks he has troubles; but then Rick unexpectedly arrives. To take up Willum's offer. To stay. To live with Willum. To share his life. Seemingly forever. And Willum thought he had troubles before!
Rick is unbearable. Crass, stupid, boring - he is a walking lexicon of adjectives you don't want to stay with for more than two minutes. He is also oblivious to insult, impenetrable to reason, impervious to rejection.
His own brother sent him away on a supposed vacation with most of the brother's life savings and all of his credit cards, and once Rick was safely away, left town with no forwarding address.
Rick has that effect on people. He alienates Willum's hotelier client, he shreds Willum's career and life, yet seems impossible to dislodge, even after Willum agrees to conspire with Tansy and Axel somehow to rid himself of the pest.
That is the story - it does have a sort of outcome I will not reveal - that is the situation, that is the character. It is one joke embellished with semi-slick one-liners, mostly one-lined by semi-slick Axel. Rick, with his party games and tambourine, his high-pitched voice and low-pitched mind, is intolerable.
He is not the sort of person you want to spend a play with. And as the play itself is nothing much more than an averagely written TV sit-com with the canned laugh track ommitted, I personally wondered what I was doing in the theater at all.
Hearing that Axel took his own duties as a drama critic so lightly that he never stayed to the end of a play awakened a fierce feel of wanderlust in the soul of my boots.
But I'm glad I stuck it out, for, whatever the limitations of the play - and these are impressive - Charles Nelson Reilly has staged it with wonderfully farcical resource.
Watch, for example, his directorial use of the swinging kitchen door, which is almost made a character in the play, and see how he has got absolutely immaculate timing from a gifted cast ready to walk through fire for a laugh.
Robert Joy's role is scarcely joyful, but he manages to play insufferable with a certain nebbish quality that is almost sympathetic, Mark Hamill has a very special battered charm as the irresolute architect, and the quick-talking Peter Riegert - a brilliantly unpleasant performance this - dominates the proceedings.
The whole cast is fine, including Miss Kalember as Hamill's weather-wise girlfriend, Mr. Tippit as the nerdily humiliated hotelier, and Pamela Blair as the hotelier wife who breaks things as therapy.
I left "The Nerd," with some relief but conscious of two things. One was that I didn't like it, and the other was a certainty that quite a lot of people will.
Connoisseurs of nerdiness - a group that includes anyone who ever passed through an American high school - will recognize all the symptoms in Robert Joy's performance in ''The Nerd'' at the Helen Hayes Theater. Mr. Joy wears horn-rimmed glasses, a short-sleeved white shirt and a clip-on black tie. One of his shirt pockets is stuffed with a small spiral notebook, the other with an ink-stained penholder packed to capacity with ball-points. The nerd speaks in a giggly, high-pitched voice and may be the last person in the country still showing off his impersonations of the Jimmys, Durante and Cagney. His favorite snack is Redi-Whip sprayed directly into the mouth and his favorite instrument, played with the elaborate aid of sheet music, is the tambourine.
In other words, he's a fellow who could drive a person crazy, and that is pretty much Mr. Joy's assignment in this comedy by Larry Shue. Act I of ''The Nerd'' recounts what happens when Mr. Joy, whose character is known as Rick, travels to the Terre Haute home of an old Vietnam war buddy, an architect named Willum (Mark Hamill), and settles in for an extended stay. Act II describes the farcical pranks by which Willum and his pals try to evict Rick once their hospitality and patience run out.
As readers of the National Lampoon and Mad magazine know best, nerds are eternally ripe for comic ridicule. Mr. Shue, who also wrote ''The Foreigner'' before dying in a plane crash in 1985, provides pockets of ace material in his first act. Mr. Joy is at his goofiest when he destroys his fellow dinner guests' appetite for hors d'oeuvres by impersonating the squawking chickens that might have laid the deviled eggs. Soon after that, Rick insists that everyone play an exasperating parlor game featuring incomprehensible rules, paper-bag masks, eye poking and the mutilation of footwear.
Along the way, Mr. Shue provides some bright one-liners as well, on such eclectic topics as Marjorie Main, Saturday-morning television animation, the fifth act of ''Hamlet'' and the least likely flavor for ice cream. But its plot similarities notwithstanding, ''The Nerd'' does not prove to be ''The Nerd Who Came to Dinner.'' Mr. Shue aspires instead to the formulas of the old-time television sitcom. When Willum's best-laid plans for playing host to his pompous boss (Wayne Tippit) are upended by Rick's accidental sowings of chaos, we're back in the cartoon world of Lucille Ball and Gale Gordon.
Fair enough, but network sitcoms run a half-hour, and ''The Nerd'' is five times that length, including intermission. It takes the playwright nearly 30 minutes to bring on Rick in Act I. Much of that warm-up is devoted to laborious, ultimately inessential exposition about Willum's architectural and romantic interests - far too much of it delivered by telephone answering machine. The prolonged, intentionally ''infantile'' slapstick shenanigans of Act II turn out to be more exhausting than hysterical, especially as rudimentarily staged by Charles Nelson Reilly.
As an actor, Mr. Reilly was once one of Broadway's choicest nerds - the boss's nephew in the musical ''How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.'' As the director of ''The Nerd,'' he has coaxed a very good performance out of Mr. Joy, but one wonders whether a dynamic, full-fledged comedian might have more successfully carried the show. (''The Nerd'' was a vehicle for Rowan Atkinson in London.) Mr. Joy is a gifted actor working hard, sometimes too hard, to create the kind of clownish turn that Art Carney spun effortlessly when playing such classic nerds as Ed Norton in ''The Honeymooners'' and Felix Unger in the original Broadway ''Odd Couple.''
The supporting cast, which includes Patricia Kalember as a voguishly feminist love interest and Pamela Blair as Mr. Tippit's all-too-repressed wife, is appropriately amiable. Mr. Hamill is an assured straight man until he must strain to metamorphose into a rampaging, snorting pig. (Don't ask why.) The sharpest performance is from Peter Riegert, who continues to display his remarkable knack for making insolence as likable as it is dyspeptically comic. His omnipresent role is that of a demanding drama critic - a character, however welcome, who turns out to be as superfluous appearing in ''The Nerd'' as he would be attending it.