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'Academia Nuts' a great end to playhouse season

August 14, 2003|JENNIFER BRUMMETT

Take a couple of stodgy academics, add one pseudo-academic/wild child and one down-to-earth - or maybe "earthy" is the better description - topless dancer, and you have the makings for an amusing little comedy called "Academia Nuts."

Running through Aug. 23 at Pioneer Playhouse, Gregg Kreutz's contemporary comedy finds on-the-lam Tammi (Holly Henson, who also directed the play) on Professor Peter Smedforson's (Daniel Hall Kuhn) doorstep in New Hampshire, freezing because she has no coat.

Also on the doorstep is Judith Pixner (Patricia Hammond), a fellow academic who has been carrying on a written correspondence with Peter about E.R. Lennox, the poet who is their common academic interest - or maybe only interest, it appears.

Judith is trying to head off her conniving ex-husband Stewart (Bruce Nicholls) before he spills the beans about her recent discovery of indications of a hidden memoir in Lennox's former home, in which Peter lives.

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Stewart is a bit of a sad sap, a quasi-intellectual - or is that redundant? - who has been relieved of his college teaching career for just about every indiscretion imaginable.

He has been reduced to teaching air conditioner repair.

Tammi picks her way into the house to warm up, and persuades Judith to come into the warmth with her in one of the most humorous opening sequences I've seen in a long time.

Henson is incredibly impressive with her animated body language and fast-talking expository about why she's on the run, and her disastrous penchant for bad business decisions, all of which Judith takes in with a strained and condescending expression.

After accidentally drenching and burning Peter's manuscript, Judith leaves in a panic. Peter enters, soon followed by Stewart, as Tammi hides in a closet.

Stewart tries to persuade Peter to look for the hidden memoir, to no avail.

Eventually, after numerous attempts by Peter to get him out of his house, Stewart leaves, and Tammi makes herself known.

Peter's response to the surprise appearance is priceless, and Kuhn's marvelous knack for physical comedy and facial expressions enhance those few moments as he struggles to breathe after the shock.

Tammi passes herself off as Judith, and Peter and she develop quite a chemistry.

Judith makes a reappearance, is insulted by Peter, leaves, then returns.

Stewart also returns as a furnace cleaner, and sneaks around the house, trying to find the door with the secret "treasure" - at least, that is what it is to the academically-inclined.

Henson is quite good as the blunt, erratic but good-hearted topless dancer, who dreams of having her own business.

She's a little envious of the serenity of the academic climate in which she finds herself at Peter's house, but not so much that she's becomes antagonistic. Henson presents a vulnerable, sweet girl who's been around the block a few times, who perhaps isn't the brightest light on the street but who is clever and incredibly amusing. It's been a long time since I've seen Henson perform on-stage, and Tammi was an excellent choice of role in which to return to the Playhouse stage.

Kuhn is wonderfully subdued as the eggheaded Peter, so enamored of the poet Lennox that it has become his all-consuming passion. When Tammi arrives, he sees that perhaps his life has been lacking in other aspects. Kuhn carries this transition with a certain geeky charm, and makes it believable by actually looking like he's thinking about what Judith says of his illustrious academic career.

Hammond presents a "straight woman" to Tammi's wackiness, which rarely is an easy task. The actress accomplishes this by maintaining a demeanor of wariness, skepticism and annoyance with Tammi, and dismissing her both to Peter and Stewart. But Hammond, a most accomplished actress, keeps Judith from becoming entirely unlikeable by making her so focused on her academic pursuits that she sees or understands little else of interest.

Nicholls also has a fast-talking, comedic role as something of a shyster, trying to find the easy route to fame and fortune.

He's stolen academic articles, lied and cheated but still comes across as a reasonably amiable guy who probably would be good for a laugh.

Much like Henson's, Nicholls' blend of physical comedy, facial expressions and fast-talking optimism make Stewart a fun and interesting character to watch.

What everyone finds, both academically and personally at the end of the scrapes and escapades of "Academia Nuts," I won't divulge. But I recommend seeing the show to discover its ending, and to watch the extraordinary chemistry of the actors develop over a couple of hours. It's a great end to a good season at Pioneer Playhouse.



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