I rarely find a book that makes me laugh uncontrollably while I read it. Oh sure, I often appreciate a writer’s humor, but it is not often that I spend 15 minutes on a single sentence, unable to proceed due to the fact that the mere thought of that line leaves me crying joyously, paralyzed with unstoppable laughter. Perhaps I was just in a silly mood, but even when I take extreme good humor into account, my reading material is still composed of two of the funniest plays I have ever had the pleasure to read.
The first play in question is The Nerd, by Larry Shue. The Nerd is the story of a young architect and Vietnam veteran named Willum. While in the war, his life was saved by an anonymous hero, who was later identified as Rick Steadman.
Although the two men never met, they maintained a correspondence for several years until one day Rick decides to make a surprise visit and come to Willum’s birthday party. Willum is thrilled until something devastating happens: he actually meets Rick.
Knowing the title of this play, it should be obvious what Rick is really like. Yet it is insufficient to merely label Rick a “nerd.” Rick Steadman is one of the great comic creations of the American theater. Utterly oblivious to social conventions, blissfully ensconced in his own little world, and brilliantly annoying, Rick steamrolls into Willum’s life and begins to start turning Willum’s life upside-down, such as it is.
The fact is, Willum is utterly miserable, but he’s too busy working to realize it. Willum’s trying to design the perfect hotel for a man so cheap he’d build his property out of cardboard if he could get away with it, plus his girlfriend is about to move away and he’s too apathetic to do anything to save the relationship.
Though it is perhaps the better of the two plays, Shue’s The Foreigner is composed of humor that is better seen on the stage than read. Many of the jokes can only be appreciated in performance. The Foreigner is the story of Charlie, a pathologically shy man who must stay at a small resort in Georgia.
Charlie, like Willum, is thoroughly miserable, but Charlie is fully aware of this fact. Charlie’s wife is unfaithful, and he works as an editor for an unimportant literary magazine editing fourth-rate science fiction.
In order to survive his stay at the resort, Charlie convinces a friend of his to tell everyone that he is from a foreign country, and neither speaks nor understands English. As a result, Charlie overhears a number of conversations not meant for public knowledge, and realizes that he must act in order to save some newly acquired friends.
Yet even though Charlie eventually foils the nefarious schemes of the Ku Klux Klan, the play is really about Charlie’s realization that he is an interesting person with the ability to make others feel appreciated.
I cannot reveal many plot points about either play without spoiling the jokes, but I will reveal that both Willum and Charlie eventually find happiness at the ends of their respective plays, thanks to their own efforts. It is amazing how Shue is able to put the most absurd situations into his plays and make them seem completely plausible in the context of the world of his characters.
Few playwrights would be able to create a character with the ability to put an entire roomful of people off their deviled eggs, or convince those same people to march around the room barefoot with paper bags over their heads, and I won’t even get into the mayhem Rick causes when he tries to save the kidneys of airplane passengers.
Suffice it to say The Nerd and The Foreigner are highly entertaining reading.
Shue once described his work as “nonsense stories,” but this is not true. These plays are about unhappy people who eventually realize their abilities to make their own lives better thanks to the effort of a man who doesn’t fit in at all.
Though some of the plot points are delightfully ludicrous, the core themes of the plays are not based on nonsense; they are founded on common sense.
Since we have lives to live, why should they not be good lives? If we must mete out justice to others, why shouldn’t it be as poetic as possible?
The route we take to achieve happiness may be difficult; it may require us to act in ways we never before believed ourselves to be capable of; but the end result is worth it if we have formed the foundations for the happiness of those we care about and ourselves.