The Nerd

The first thing you need to know about Larry Shue’s farce The Nerd is that, like The Odd Couple, it has two versions, and that the difference between them is to do with gender. If you ever get the chance to see the play, you’ll want to check two things. First, whether the cast includes a character named Thor or Thora. You’re shooting for Thora… (But you might also find she’s been renamed more radically.) But if she’s on the cast list, you’re not out of the woods yet.

Next you need, if you possibly can, to check the age of the actress who’s playing her – because Thora is another of those monstrous child characters who can be embodied by an adult actress playing young, but may also be cast at her own age – in which case, either forget it or just go purely for the pleasure of the play itself and not for the spanking scene. As I’ve said before, Vanilla Spanking has no interest in and does not recommend or condone child spankings. They sometimes happen in real life, and are therefore sometimes portrayed in the theater, but we only become interested when they are represented using an actress who is herself old enough to be spanked.

It’s Willum Cubbert’s birthday, a few days after Halloween. He’s 34, the same age as the author when he wrote the play. That’s not a coincidence, because Willum is a role Larry Shue wrote for himself to play, and did in the first production. It opened at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater in April 1981, and we shall not concern ourselves further with it for reasons of Thor. Nor shall we be paying much attention to the play’s progress in the 1980s, with a production at the Manchester Royal Exchange in 1982, another in London’s West End in 1986 with Rowan Atkinson in the title role, and a third on Broadway with Mark Hamill as Willum, which ran for more than a year in 1987-8 and sealed the play’s success – sadly too late for Shue himself to witness, because he was killed in a plane crash in 1985.

Back to Willum. Since it’s his birthday, his answering machine contains an open invitation to visit his house. Those who turn up include the Waldgrave family: the uptight Warnock (nicknamed Ticky), his patient wife Clelia and their daughter Thora, whom we shall leave it to the stage direction to describe:

We know that there are good little girls; there are also precocious little girls, which is to say bad little girls whom we can somehow find it in our hearts to forgive. Thora is neither. Thora is a monster, and might well usurp the action from our other characters were she not soon relegated to another room.

Thora’s first act is to insist that she doesn’t want to be there at all and run screaming into the bedroom, where she locks herself in. ‘If you treat her as an adult, she’ll respond as an adult,’ insists Clelia, but Warnock has no luck trying to bribe the brat: offered thirty dollars to come out, Thora sets her price at fifty. No deal, only an ‘I’ll deal with you later!’ The action continues punctuated with noises off as Thora amuses herself among Willum’s intimate possessions.

There is another visitor, one Willum really wasn’t expecting to see. He has never actually met Rick Steadman, because he was unconscious the only time they were in each other’s presence: Steadman dragged him to safety after he was wounded in Vietnam, saving his life, and Willum later wrote him and offered hospitality should he ever be in the area. Big mistake, but he’s not to know that Steadman is the play’s title character: the Nerd! And since Willum lives in Indiana and Steadman in Wisconsin, he never expected his offer to be taken up… but now Steadman arrives, having gotten the mistaken impression that Willum is holding a Halloween party. He has come dressed for the occasion – and that is the first nasty shock Thora gets in the course of the play.

Thora immediately takes refuge in the closet, giving Steadman the impression that they are playing hide-and-seek. He too conceals himself, so that when Willum and Waldgrave return to the stage, they have no idea that anything untoward has taken place. And now it’s time for Thora to get her second nasty shock, and to be ‘dealt with’:

Thora explodes out of the closet, clutching Waldgrave around the waist and hiding her face in his stomach.

WALDGRAVE: Thora–! What is it? What’s wrong? (Thora just shakes her head.) You’re tickling me, kid. Come on. Tell Daddy what’s bothering you.

Thora whispers squeakily in his ear, pointing at the door.

WALDGRAVE: A what?

Thora whispers again. Waldgrave sits her down on the sofa. His tone is patient, fatherly.

WALDGRAVE: Now, Thora, you know. You know I put up with a lot, but –

He turns Thora over his knee and spanks the daylights out of her.

WALDGRAVE: I – will – not – put – up – with – a – liar!

The Nerd 1992-93 Leetonia HS

Dan Mincks spanks the daylights out of Melanie Boyer at Leetonia High School, Ohio, during the school year 1992-93.

Thora wails and runs back into the bedroom, slamming the door again. Clelia has entered during the spanking.

CLELIA: Ticky –

WALDGRAVE (silencing her with a warning finger): Clelia –?

Now, obviously that’s an unjust spanking, because Thora wasn’t lying about the monster; but nobody much cares because she has it coming to her anyway for other reasons. Thora spends the rest of Act I alternately hiding and being scared by the now empty monster costume, while the adults are left to identify and deal with the main problem of the play: that Steadman is the most infuriating idiot ever to walk the earth, and that he believes his invitation to visit Willum is open-ended and indefinite – in other words, he has no plans to leave. But the Waldgraves do leave at the end of the first act, and only Warnock returns in the second. Thora’s spanking plays no further part in the plot and is not referred to again.

The play is frequently performed by high schools, and thankfully in such circumstances it tends to be impossible to cast the role of Thora at the character’s true age. Teenagers continue to be amused by the idea of theatrical ageplay and stage spanking, even though the latter may now be less ubiquitous a feature of American family life than it was in the heyday of Men are Like Streetcars. They also sometimes show an interest in the methods used to abet the illusion, as seen in this write-up of the spring 1993 production at Alhambra High School, California:

The Nerd 1993 Alhambra HS California

High schools are prone to use the Thora version in order to spread the participation more evenly between the genders: the other characters break down as four men and two women, so it helps if the young Waldgrave is a Miss rather than a Master. Professional theater companies also sometimes choose to bypass the regulations governing the use of child actors, and this makes them more likely to use the Thora version simply because it’s easier to find young actresses who can play children.

But from time to time Thor becomes not Thora but some other Scandivavian name such as Freja or Sigrid; and at Vestavia Hills High School, Alabama, in the fall of 1996, Erin Cook played Helga Waldgrave. Here she is being spanked by Justin Garrick:

The Nerd 1997 Vestavia Hills HS Alabama

And The Nerd doesn’t look as if it will run out of popularity anytime soon: it is still being performed and now, sometimes, videotaped. So to end with, here’s the 2010 production at Dundee Crown High School, Carpentersville, Illinois:

For an update, go here.

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