Letters from a Nut
Reviewed by Neal Weaver
The Geffen Playhouse
Through July 30
At the height of the Vietnam War, Paul Krassner, editor of The Realist, a periodical with anarchist leanings, sent a copy of his notorious “Fuck Communism” poster to Senator Bob Dole. In response, he received a reply saying, “Thank you for your suggestion. You can be sure It will receive serious consideration.” This disconnect suggests the essence of writer/performer Ted L. Nancy’s humor.
Letters from a Nut began when Nancy realized that many product wrappers invited comments or questions, and decided to respond to some of them. Given that Nancy has a bizarre and eccentric sense of humor, his letters ranged from the weird and outrageous to the downright surreal. That didn’t prevent the companies in question from attempting to respond seriously to his messages, no matter how strange they might be. Nancy then turned his letters, and their replies, into a series of books. The crème of the joke is that both his letters and the replies were absolutely real. The success of the books persuaded him to adapt them into —if not a play exactly —then certainly a show.
His attempts to order an electric chair, a gas chamber and a firing squad elicit regretful apologies for being unable to supply these items. He asks an Asian costume company if they can supply costumes for obese men who like to dress as Batman and an airline whether they are able to accommodate him and his 59-footlong salami. (They replied earnestly that a salami of that size would weight several tons, and therefore was beyond the capabilities of their airline.) He writes to the city of Huntington Beach asking for a permit for his electronic nose-blowing machine, and invites Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel to become treasurer of Ted’s Vacuum Club. He submits a really awful poem to a poetry contest, on the theme of how passionately he hates poetry contests. In reply, he is informed that his brilliant poem was the winner of the contest, and for a mere $59.95 they would publish it. And no subsequent poem he writes proves awful enough to discourage them.
The production as a whole is as wacky as Nancy’s sense of humor. As he reads the letters, his manner is amused but laid back. Beth Kennedy acts out all the replies in a host of wigs, outfits, and styles, while a third character, billed as Pagliacci (Sam Kwasman, portrays a dead-pan comedian in a white clown costume. He lip syncs to a couple of operatic arias (interrupted by a cellphone sales pitch), and wanders through at mysterious intervals, making silent but eloquent comments.
Much of the show is quite hilarious. Director Pierre Balloón keeps it moving briskly along, and all three of the performers are blessed with solid comic timing. Not all the humor quite comes off, but the few misses can’t detract from the show’s overall loony comedy.
The Geffen Playhouse, 19886 Le Conte Avenue, Westwood. Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. (310) 208-6500 or www.geffenplayhouse.org. Running time: 65 minutes with no intermission.