Think of the most irritating person you've ever met -- someone who gets under your skin and makes it crawl.
Now imagine he saved your life and you are forever in his debt.
That's the premise behind Larry Shue's "The Nerd," a comedy whose current production at the Spotlighters is virtually guaranteed to have you laughing out loud before the evening is over.
In large part, that's due to the late playwright's skill at writing physical comedy -- piling silly situations on top of each other until they explode from their own ridiculousness.
Things start off simply enough. A mild-mannered architect named Willum receives a surprise visit from Rick Steadman, the man who saved his life in Vietnam. Willum has never met Rick, but he has corresponded with him, expressing his
undying gratitude and promising him that he will always have a place to stay. And "always" appears to be how long Rick intends to stay.
Of course, this set-up can only be truly comical if the performances are sincere. It takes more than a plastic pocket protector and Scotch-taped eyeglasses to make a nerd. Joe Giffels demonstrates a good grasp of the subtleties: His shoulders are so hunched, you want to slap him with a yardstick and yell, "Stand up straight!" And his nasal voice sounds as if he's gulping for air when he talks; it's like listening to Bullwinkle under water.
As the ever-polite, well-meaning Willum, Tom Seibert has a knack for playing the ordinary Joe caught in an extraordinarily exasperating situation. He's funny because he makes you imagine the lengths you would go to if you were in his place. Before long, it seems perfectly logical that this sensible architect is crawling around snorting like a pig.
The play also includes some amusing secondary characters who keep matters spinning out of control. Roger Buchanan, as Willum's hot-headed boss, becomes increasingly hilarious as he becomes increasingly hysterical. As Willum's close friend -- a drama critic with the fitting nickname "Ax" -- Rodney Atkins' slick cynicism make him a good foil for the bumbling Nerd.
Director Harriet Broady paces the action too slowly at first -- and it lags even more during the long passages of static-y audio tape used to simulate Willum's answering machine. But the pace picks up by the second act -- so much so that you'll probably be caught completely off guard by the twist at the end.
"The Nerd" continues at the Spotlighters weekends through Sept. 29; call 752-1225.