Anyone who has worked in customer service has had an experience with someone like Barry Marder’s book character, the “nut.”
Writing and performing under the pseudonym and alter ego Ted L. Nancy, Marder embraces the label of a “nut” and makes it his own in the live presentation of his book, “Letters from a Nut,” at the Geffen Playhouse. The play adaptation, produced by Jerry Seinfeld, runs from June 23 to July 30 and features Nancy’s character as he sends preposterous letters to multiple customer service representatives, all played by Beth Kennedy.
Nancy and Kennedy create an upbeat dynamic that compels the audience to shift their attention back and forth across the stage to catch each character’s comical reactions. The contrast between Nancy’s composed, matter-of-fact demeanor and Kennedy’s range of theatrically expressive characters creates hysterical scenes that instigate genuine laughs from the audience.
The play opens with a nonchalant entrance by Nancy, who thanks the audience for coming by and listening to the “nonsense” being presented on stage.
[Read more: Theater review: ‘Constellations’]
Though self-aware of his absurdity, which becomes evident in quirks such as his self-diagnosed disease that causes him to bark out random men’s names when aggravated, Nancy proves to be shameless and unapologetic in his letters. The audience cannot help but admire the charismatic way he manages to incorporate flattering compliments amid all his ridiculous requests.
Nancy writes to companies requesting all kinds of products, from plus-size Batman costumes to electric chairs, and expects services to cater to his outrageous needs, such as gaining permission to house 300 hamsters in hotel rooms. He also gets creative with product and business partnership proposals, suggesting ideas like selling ham sandwiches in the men’s room of a casino.
Nancy is also as relatable as it gets when he jokes about common dilemmas such as being stuck on a cramped plane or deciding whether the butt or crotch is the proper way to face the person in the next seat when entering or exiting a row of seats in a stadium.
However, no matter how outrageous, each of Nancy’s crazy letters is met with a reply; Kennedy writes back to Nancy and accurately captures the underlying amusement and frustration behind every polite “the customer is always right” corporate response. She goes from an SC Johnson representative who shudders at the thought of Ziploc bags being used to store marijuana to a Czech Republic president in a matter of seconds. Kennedy also switches in and out of outlandish wigs, accessories and outfits to signify the change in characters while the spotlight focuses on Nancy. However, her melodramatic impersonations are more convincing than any of the wigs she wears.
Although Kennedy is spot on when it comes to immersing herself in each character, she and the other characters also break the fourth wall by addressing the audience and acknowledging their own fictionality. An announcer interrupts the play to ask if anyone in the audience knows what time the Ralphs outside The Geffen closes, and a grumpy clown named Pagliacci (Sam Kwasman), who carries out props as part of the backstage crew of the play, is featured in multiple scenes.
The play tries to engage the audience through Pagliacci’s unenthusiastic looks toward them, similar to how a character in the sitcom “The Office” would look at the camera. The inclusive elements give the impression that the audience is laughing “with” rather than “at” the characters.
After the curtain falls and the laughs die down, the audience may start to consider whether Nancy’s actions were perhaps not without rhyme or reason, prompting them to be more confident and imaginative like Nancy is with his requests.
As much as viewers would like to believe they are nothing like the “nut” Nancy portrays himself to be, maybe they are not so different after all – and maybe that’s not such a bad thing.