the chorister's c

Larry Shue, an appreciation

 

photo: Mark Avery Photography

Larry Shue photoLarry Shue, a promising young middle-aged actor and playwright, had his career cut short at the age of 39 by the crash of a commuter plane on 23 September 1985. He left behind a small published body of work, including two full-length crowd-pleasing comedies that are a staple of community theatre repertory.

photos: Janet Greentree

Much of Larry Shue's gentle, thoughtful humor derives from mistaken identity and role-playing, especially when the role-playing gets out of hand. It's not the bing-bang one-liner comedy of someone like Neil Simon. His plays include the following:

  • the early Siliasocles;
  • the one-act Grandma Duck is Dead, college dormitory zaniness that anticipates themes of the later full-length plays;
  • My Emperor's New Clothes, set in the kingdom of Mango-Chutney, a one-act children's musical based on the Hans Christian Andersen story (Shue works in some cross-dressing, as well as a rhyme for "orange");
  • and the bittersweet political drama Wenceslas Square, set in 1974 Prague after the Soviet invasion.

But the twin comic achievements are The Nerd and The Foreigner.


Shue's characters and situations in The Nerd are deceptively simple and commonplace: Willum, a likable architect for a protagonist (perhaps he's lacking a little in "gumption"); his sometime girlfriend; a wisecracking best friend; a client with a short fuse and his family; and the title character, the house guest from hell. A simple dinner party, some party games that go a little bit awry -- and by the end of Act I we are in a zone of hilarious insanity. Here is an exchange between the spluttering client and Rick, the nerdy house guest:

WALDGRAVE. Put my fingers in my ears and turn around and hum! I own eight hotels! I come here to do a little business and maybe have a little drink, and look at me! I'm barefoot and half-blind with my goddam head in a bag! And now some goddam chalk inspector is standing here telling me to put my fingers in my ears and and turn around and hum!

RICK. Right. Okay?

Clelia, the client's wife, is a comic gem of a part. Her unique stress-reduction technique is to break small pieces of crockery. When Waldgrave reappears in the second act, we wish that Clelia was with him.

The Nerd was first presented by the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre in April, 1981, with Shue in the role of the architect. It was subsequently produced by the Royal Exchange Theatre Company in Manchester, England, in April, 1982, followed by a very successful West End production. A 1987 Broadway production, directed by Charles Nelson Reilly, is recorded in the Internet Theatre Database.


Everyone is a bit edgier in The Foreigner, but again an assumed identity drives the story and the comedy. The setting is a backwoods lodge in Georgia. A lovable but boring professional proofreader, there on holiday, outwits a scheming preacher and his accomplice with the Ku Klux Klan, and keeps the lodge property in the family. To do so, he must pretend, for an act and a half, to speak no English at all.

These are the entrance stage directions for Owen, the KKK'er who turns out to be all bluster:

(Psychologists tell us to beware of a man with two tattoos. One, he may have gotten on a drunk or a dare. But two means he went back. Owen is a two-tattoo man.)

Perhaps the funniest section is a wordless game of Mirror -- a ballet for two men, a breakfast table, and two empty juice glasses. Or perhaps it's the story of Little Red Riding Hood told in Eastern European gibberish.

It's more difficult to make some of the comedy work in this piece. If played too heavily, the characters will come off simply as stupid caricatures, and the humor will be mean-spirited. As an actor, you have to meet these people on their own terms.

Foreigner adThe Foreigner was likewise premiered by the Milwaukee Rep, in January, 1983. It went on to be produced at the off-Broadway Astor Place Theatre, opening in November, 1984, under the direction of Jerry Zaks. In the New York show, Shue played "Froggy" and later Charlie Baker, the title character.

Frank Rich, writing for the New York Times, wasn't impressed. He faulted the play's "preposterous plot" and "convoluted shenanigans," although he did commend Anthony Heald for his star turn as Charlie. While Rich did enjoy the scene in which Charlie teaches the Georgians his language (whatever that might be), the set reminded him of the notorious 80's flop, Moose Murders. You can't believe everything you read in the newspaper.

It's reported that one Astor Place performance was disrupted by an explosion in the basement. The second act was delayed for 45 minutes while the audience waited outside in the freezing rain, eager to see the end of the play.

The Foreigner was still running in New York at the time of Shue's death. He was working on a film adaptation of the play for Disney and a musical. (Perhaps it's just as well that a Hollywood version of the play never saw the light of day.) He also told an interviewer that he was working on a comedy about "growing old, death, disease, and rock 'n' roll."


Shue delights in eccentric, goofy, comedic names for his characters and the personas that they take on. The three friends in The Nerd are named Axel, Willum, and Tansy. When introduced to Willum's pompous client Waldgrave, who insists on the nickname "Ticky," Axel replies, "Just call me Gumbo." In The Foreigner, Ellard says that a good name for Princess Diana's soon-to-be-born son would be "Prince Buddy." Grandma Duck Is Dead features Ben Davidson,

whose real name, Ralph C. Osterman, was last heard so long ago that it now ranks as a trivia category, on the level of "Who was Goldwater's running mate?" Some teacher remarked one day, "Say, you look like Ben Davidson." And that was that. He does, too, in a way.
The Foreigner's Charlie even gives a name to his tongue: Floppy. Well, it fits.

Much thanks to Shari Raymond, who passed along a copy of a letter from Larry. An excerpt:

Shue portrait July 1, 1974

Dear Miss R—

The only other Shari I ever knew was a Miss Shari Eubank, one of my fellow drama majors back at old Illinois Wesleyan University.... She pronounced her name "Shah-ri," so that it rhymed with "sorry," and dedicated her life to correcting people who mispronounced it "Sherry." Chief offender was old Dr. Tucker, head of the department, who every week at roll call for two years would call her name wrong and elicit her patient, yet insistent, response, thus:

"Mike Elkhart?"

"Here."

"Don Elmore?"

"Here."

"Sherry Eubank?"

"Shah-ri. Here."

This went on till it assumed the aura of ritual, and I think if one day old Dr. Tucker had pronounced her name right, or if she hadn't corrected him, all ninety of us in the seminar would have jumped, and some would have cried out, "What just happened?"

The tradition was finally quashed by me, taking up a dare, I think. One day Dr. Tucker came to my name and said, "Larry Shue?"

And I said, "Lah-ri. Here."

 

Larry Shue grave


The Beech 99 aircraft crashed in Virginia's Blue Ridge, on approach to Shenandoah Valley Airport, which is between Staunton and Harrisonburg. Fourteen people were killed. One of the spooky ironies of the work is that Willum's monologue at the top of the second act of The Nerd is a comic story of a bumpy ride in a commuter plane.

Larry Shue was born in New Orleans on 23 July 1946, and grew up in Chicago. He was graduated cum laude from Illinois Wesleyan University, where he received a B.F.A. in 1968. He served in the Army, and then began his career as professional actor and playwright with the Harlequin Dinner Theatre of Washington, D.C. and Atlanta.

His acting credits include The Mystery of Edwin Drood at the Delacorte in New York, American Buffalo with Berkeley Repertory, and television's One Life to Live. Film appearances include a short bit in the otherwise woefully bad Sweet Liberty. Larry wrote and appeared in the shorts A Common Confusion; The Land of the Blind, Or The Hungry Leaves; and Another Town, all directed by Daniel Krogh, who graciously made copies of the material available to me. Jerry Zaks won an Obie for his direction of The Foreigner, and Anthony Heald received a performance award.

Casting and design requirements for the following shows are available:

Larry Shue's plays are published by Dramatists Play Service. A PDF-format study guide for The Foreigner is available from Amazon.com. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (who helped provide the headshot) has the Larry Shue archive. FindAGrave.com (who helped provide the gravesite photos) has an entry. Craig Mahlstedt wrote a brief tribute as part of the program notes to a production of The Nerd.

the chorister's c ||| A Honey of an Anklet

As an actor in community theatre, I've been fortunate to appear in two of Larry Shue's plays. If you have an anecdote or recollection of Larry Shue that you'd like to share with the readers of this page, I'd love to receive it.

Last update: Thursday, 4 July 2013.
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