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L.A. Theater Review: ‘Letters from a Nut by Ted L. Nancy,’ Produced by Jerry Seinfeld

Variety logo Variety 6/30/2017 Peter Debruge
© Provided by Variety

Randall Arney

Artistic Director

Geffen Playhouse

10886 Le Conte Ave.

Los Angeles, CA 90024

Dear Sir:

First, let me just say that I am a great admirer of your institution, the Geffen Playhouse — and the man for which it is named. (Did you know that Dreamworks SKG is also named for David Geffen? He’s the “G.”)

I should add that the Geffen Playhouse has some of the finest restrooms in Westwood. Although you might want to change the industrial pink soap. I don’t like the way it makes my hands smell.

As I’m sure you know, Los Angeles is starved for live theater. That is why it troubles me that the Geffen would dedicate its second stage to “Letters from a Nut by Ted L. Nancy” — which isn’t so much a play as a live reading of prank letters to corporate customer service representatives and various world leaders, previously collected in a series of novelty books — when so many young talents are relegated to tiny stages in Pasadena and that stretch of Melrose just north of the DMV.

Surely there is a more appropriate venue — perhaps a comedy club, or bingo night at a local retirement home — where Mr. Nancy (a pseudonym for comedian Barry Marder, who writes for the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher) can share his epistolary wit, which includes an earnest request to an Indian casino requesting that he be allowed to sell ham sandwiches in the men’s room, or a series of letters to Harriet Carter, asking the gift company whether they stock an electric chair, a gas chamber or a firing squad.

Seventy minutes is a long time to listen to Marder recite passages from his books, the lot of which cost approximately half the price of a theater ticket. Marder maintained the Ted L. Nancy character for years, but it’s not entirely clear whom Marder is playing on stage. Not Nancy, who’s most amusing when the person on the other end is obliged to take him seriously in that charitable “the customer is always right” attitude that allows a kook to get away with, say, accusing Ralphs grocery stores of selling him a haunted sponge. And not himself, although he does make the prank-letter premise clear via an opening monologue (one that’s funnier than anything that follows, suggesting that a standup show might’ve been a better use of Marder’s talents).

I must admit that it was Seinfeld’s name that drew me to the show. He has been Marder’s greatest public champion, writing introductions for the books, and outing their true author on TV (after others took credit). On YouTube, one can find a 2013 video of Seinfeld and Marder spitballing ideas for some sort of surrounding narrative on which they might have hung Ted L. Nancy’s letters, although I guess that never materialized.

And who is this “Pierre Balloón” credited as director anyway? In the end, Marder shares the stage with Beth Kennedy, who assumes more than two dozen accents and disguises as the various customer service representatives (for everything from Degree deodorant to Health Guard toilet seat covers), and a clown (Sam Kwasman) who throws confetti and lip-syncs “Pagliacci.” Kennedy’s role requires considerable energy and a modicum of acting ability, as she attempts to channel the spirit in which they replied. Isn’t that the real joke here? That no matter how annoying Nancy’s letters, it’s the job of these hapless corporate spokespeople to treat his requests seriously?

It’s less funny when Nancy addresses a letter to random world leaders, insulting their countries, while requesting a signed photo of the president/prime minister in question. Or maybe it is funny to those who couldn’t locate the Czech Republic on a map, and think the name Vaclav Havel sounds silly. Marder gets a laugh when he props a signed photo of Havel on his desk, ignoring the fact that such an artifact would hold genuine value to anyone with a passing awareness of the philosopher-turned-president’s contributions to democracy. Certainly, Havel (an accomplished playwright) would have known how to turn this mess into a proper piece of theater.

Perhaps I’m missing the joke. Still, it’s strange that Marder’s shtick depends on sounding credible enough to elicit a response, while his goal is to be so outrageous that his targets can’t possibly sustain the conversation (as when he counters Nordstrom’s polite reply to his already-bizarre request to purchase a mannequin that reminds him of a dead neighbor with a new demand, this time to buy a younger model from the athletic department).

Since the jokes work best in the imagination, we don’t need the goofy photos, nor Alan Marder’s ridiculous illustrations (familiar to readers of the books, or those who know Ted L. Nancy’s “Scammers” series from Hulu). And while amusing to see a clip in which “The Office’s” Oscar Martinez hand-deliver a set of Mickey Mantle’s toenails to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the inclusion of such video sketches further begs the question what this show is doing on stage in the first place.

In summary, it turns out that trying to be funny while writing obnoxious letters is harder than it looks. But then, so is sitting through them.

Sincerely,

Peter Debruge

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