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Federal Way's CenterStage presents a lovingly nerdy reunion
A long-lost war buddy has returned to Willum Cubbert’s life. Unfortunately, it turns out the man who saved him back in Vietnam is also one of the most obnoxious people on Earth and needs a place to stay.
Such is the setup for Larry Shue’s modern classic “The Nerd,” which has been entertaining audiences since 1981 and is about to encamp at Centerstage in Federal Way at the hands of original director John Dillon.
Dillon, a Pacific Northwest native, began directing in the 1970s and set out for a career in D.C. A lucky phone call from an area dinner theatre had him taking over a production of “1776,” starring an up-and-coming actor named Larry Shue as founding father Benjamin Franklin. The production was a success, and Dillon quickly found a way to work with Shue again, this time in the Sid Caesar musical tribute “Little Me.”
In 1977, Dillon became head of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater and called in Shue to join the company. The actor, stranded in Atlanta when his prior employer had gone bust, eagerly accepted. While working in the theater as a character actor, Shue wrote a skit for the theater’s annual banquet, which went down a storm.
Spotting potential, Dillon asked Shue to write a one-act play for the following year’s studio season. When the one-act was well received, Dillon challenged Shue to write a full length play - which turned out to be “The Nerd” — again for the black box, and subsequently transferred to the main stage in 1981. Shue would play Willum in this original production and dedicated the play to Dillon, by then his best friend, and fellow Milwaukee Repertory actor Jim Pickering. Tragically, Shue died in a plane crash in 1985.
In 1986, with Rowan Atkinson as Rick Steadman, the nerd of the title, the play was the top-grossing American play in the west end. In 1988, “The Nerd” premiered on Broadway, starring Star Wars lead Mark Hamill and directed by game show celeb Charles Nelson Reilly. The show has since become a modern classic and stunning example of American farce.
Having come home to the Northwest in 1993 after ending his tenure in Milwaukee, Dillon has continued to work in the area, but returning to “The Nerd” now was pure luck and timing: “Alan [Bryce, artistic director] asked me if I’d like to do something at Centerstage,” says Dillon. “I thought it would be great to be reunited with [Larry] through the work.”
Bryce loved the idea, and for the first time in 32 years, Dillon is directing “The Nerd.” “I’m not trying to replicate the original, but it’s great to re-explore [Larry’s] sense of humor with this great cast.”
Thematically, the tale of indebtedness to a war comrade in a self-centered world and how far one goes to do a favor is timeless. While the play is set following the Vietnam War in the early 1980s, it could just as easily be about a current soldier after his time in Iraq or Afghanistan, keeping it fresh, despite some obvious links to the period.
“Larry had a unique sense of humor,” recalls Dillon. “He was remarkably adept at the fragility of words, where a pun can lead to misunderstanding, and also had a great understanding of theatrical forms. The play goes back and forth hilarious word play and broad farce.”
In addition to catching “The Nerd” at Centerstage, fans of Larry Shue can also see his second major work, “The Foreigner,” at the Village Theatre in Issaquah during the month of February. Shue, known for being shy when not performing, would likely approve — Dillon fondly recalls him having said, “I prefer theater to real life because I can rehearse it first.”
“The Nerd” runs from Jan. 24 through Feb. 9 at The Knutzen Family Theatre, 3200 SW Dash Point Road, Federal Way. Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at (253) 661-1444 or online at www.centerstagetheatre.com.