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Marquette Wire

‘The Nerd’ to return to Milwaukee roots

Photo by Claire Gallagher
Castmates Alex Keiper and Michael Doherty relocated their wedding from Philadelphia to Milwaukee to act in this production.

The discomfort of confronting someone can create a complex situation. Larry Shue’s play “The Nerd” explores this dilemma, but adds an extra caveat: The protagonist feels that he owes the other character his life.

“The Nerd” will run its fourth Milwaukee Repertory Theater staging Nov. 12 through Dec. 15. The play follows the protagonist Willum Cubbert’s comedic attempts to evict Rick Steadman, the man who saved his life in the Vietnam War, from his home.

The Rep also hosted the play’s worldwide debut back in 1981.

“People just love to return to something that they know well, and I think for these local audiences (the play has) really entered into comedy classic territory,” Jeremy Peter Johnson, who plays Axel Hammond in the production, said.

With the play having debuted in Milwaukee and having had multiple restagings in the city, Johnson said he felt there was an important “homegrown” aspect of the play.

Michael Doherty, who plays Rick Steadman, said he fell in love with the play when he first attempted to direct it in high school. He said that personal connection to the piece prompted him and fiancée Alex Keiper — Tansy McGinnis in the play — to make a major life decision.

“To get to do (‘The Nerd’) at its birthplace just feels kind of remarkable, so remarkable that we even changed the location of our wedding,” Doherty said. “We were planning a whole Philly wedding, and then we got the offer and we were like, ‘Let’s have a destination Milwaukee wedding.’”

“(The play) is going to be part of our story (of our wedding) as well, which is super cool,” Keiper added. Doherty said the pair will be getting married here in Milwaukee the day before the show’s first public preview.

Keiper said the type of humor present in “The Nerd” is precise and calculated.

“It’s like comedy math, that’s what we call it,” Keiper said. “You have to do the math equations to make sure that the laugh will be there, and then you have to imbue it with honesty so people don’t just see it as a setup.”

Doherty said comedy can be found in the awkward discomfort that some of the jokes create.

“It’s that cringe humor,” Doherty said. “It’s the kind of stuff you’d find in ‘Meet the Parents’ or the British version of ‘The Office.’ Part of what makes it so funny is that you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, if I were there, I would tear my skin off.’”

Johnson’s character is part of the plot’s central trio of friends: Hammond, Cubbert and McGinnis. Johnson said the play’s focus on this friend group distinguishes “The Nerd” from other comedies.

“You see a lot of plays that deal with parent-child relationships or sibling relationships or couples, tons and tons and tons of love stories, but I can’t think of tons of plays where it’s about a band of friends,” Johnson said. “(These are) people who have known each other such a long time and love each other so deeply that they’re not just able to have kind of heated arguments, but also able to be direct and honest with each other, also go to extraordinary lengths to help each other be happy.”

Doherty said the play’s theme of friendship highlights the notion that family can be chosen.

“That idea of ‘found family’ … it’s like we can really care for each other and really take care of each other even if we don’t have the blood bond. That’s profound, it’s beautiful,” Doherty said.

The timing of the play also adds value, Keiper said.

“It’s also why it is done during the holidays — though it is not a holiday play, there’s nothing to do with it in the show — it feels familiar, it’s something you can come home to,” Keiper said. “It’s also nice to be a part of a holiday thing that has nothing to do with a religion or any other tradition attached to that time of year. It’s just about joy.”

Keiper added that college students can draw parallels between their lives and those of the characters in the play.

“These friendships, I think, college students will see themselves in, and the way that (our characters) communicate, and we’re all sort of these 30-somethings but liberally minded and trying to move forward with our lives and our ambitions and trying to help each other do the same thing,” Keiper said.

Johnson said college students can also find inspiration in the plot.

“When I talk to college students now, I detect this underlying anxiety, real or imagined, about ‘Oh my gosh, I’m about to go out into the world,’” Johnson said. “I think what might be appealing about this play is seeing people not much older than a college student navigating adult life … with some wit and some grace but really with a lot of heart under it.”

Aside from its comedic value, the play was also ahead of its time in challenging societal ideas, Keiper said.

“We’re set in the late ’70s, so there’s still a lot of growing to do in terms of feminism, but in terms of plays that were written around this time, Larry Shue is really good at writing women — they feel like people,” Keiper said. “So often in plays they don’t feel like people … like they’re just there for the love story and that’s it.”

Keiper said she hopes the audience takes away a message of self-advocacy from the play.

“Saying what’s honest or saying what you need in the moment from the people around you — whether or not you’re going to get it — it’s not going to be as awful as you think it’s going to be,” Keiper said.

Tickets can be bought on The Rep’s website, with showtimes varying by day. The Rep will offer College Night Nov. 14, where students can buy a ticket and a pre-show meal for $15.

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