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At home in his own world

The arts | THEATER

Actor French Stewart stays focused on his specialty, comedy, in the Colony's 'Nerd.'

June 05, 2003|Leslee Komaiko | Special to The Times

French Stewart doesn't get too many traveling salesmen at his home high above the Sunset Strip. So this must be his special day. Or not.

"This will just take 30 seconds," says the earnest fellow standing in his doorway, holding a mysterious spray bottle.

"I'm sorry," says Stewart. "It's not a good time."

"I promise," says the salesman. "This will just take 30 seconds."

"It's really not a good time," Stewart repeats.

The salesman is undeterred. He launches into a spiel about how this cleaning product is nontoxic. To prove the point, he sprays the stuff directly into his own mouth, not once, but three times.

"I'm sorry," says Stewart. "I gotta go. I'm doing an interview."

With this, the salesman relents. But not before asking one final question: "Are you a famous movie star?"

"I'm a semi-famous movie star," Stewart responds, then shuts the door and returns to the dining room.

"My feeling is: Never keep the door open for a guy who shoots cleaner into his mouth," he says.

It seems perhaps fitting that this unwelcome visitor should come just days before Stewart plays one on stage. "The Nerd" opens Saturday at the Colony Theatre in Burbank, with Stewart in the title role. The Nerd, a.k.a. Rick Steadman, is a buffoonish, insufferable loser with no social graces who shows up at the home of an old war buddy and stays and stays.

"French is great at coming up with really inventive ways of subverting what is acceptable," says the show's director, David Rose. "He said something to me early on: 'There are a lot of actors who want to do "Lear" or "Hamlet" and that's great for them. But this kind of role is my "Lear." ' And he's right. He's this incredibly gifted comic actor."

"I do the kind of work that gets revered by the French," Stewart says, no doubt alluding to the French's peculiar fondness for Jerry Lewis. "A lot of goofball stuff. It's kind of what I do. I have no shame.

"People were asking me, 'Well, you're known for doing this goofy thing and you have this opportunity to go to the theater and you're doing goofy again? Why wouldn't you do "Long Day's Journey Into Night?" ' The answer is: Because no one wants to see [me] in 'Long Day's Journey Into Night.' " Besides, he adds, "I like doing goofy. I feel that's my fit."

The Albuquerque native used to perform in at least one play a year, often over the summer. "To me, summertime will always be associated with having fun," he explains. "And there's nothing more fun than doing a play."

In recent years, however, work has gotten in the way. More lucrative television and film work, that is. But when the television pilot Stewart did with radio personality Phil Hendrie and actress Laurie Metcalf didn't get picked up for the fall, a long-awaited opportunity arose. Stewart's best friend, actor Jonathan Palmer (a member of the Colony Theatre Company) handed him "The Nerd" script. The 39-year-old Stewart had long wanted to do something at the 280-seat Colony. "I've always had sort of strong feelings for the Colony," he says. "I have a lot of friends there. I like the space."

Stewart shares little in common with character Rick Steadman. For starters, he doesn't like being a house guest. "I would rather stay in a hotel than be beholden to someone," he says. "There are certain people I could be comfortable with."

Perhaps rethinking this last statement, he confesses, "I'm a big snorer. I don't necessarily want to spill all my issues on someone or put anyone out too much. I like to be self-sufficient. I think it's a fault more than anything. I like to keep my imaginary slate clean."

Nor does Stewart have much nerd in him, now at least. He is, rather, casually cool in his Adidas cap and blue suede sneakers. He has a beautiful and sharp actress wife, Katherine LaNasa. He lives in a fabulous 1940s house. He seems to be totally comfortable where he is in life and genuinely grateful to be there, if somewhat surprised and amused by what he calls his "outrageous luck."

"But growing up," he admits, "I always felt awkward. You see those people that have a natural way about them. I never felt like that. Fortunately, my mother was really awesome. She let me be who I was. It wasn't unusual for me to walk off to first grade wearing a Confederate hat and a big spangly vest with bell bottoms. She let me express myself."

Perhaps he will evoke his first-grade self Saturday night when he dons thick glasses, black pants, white shirt and mismatched socks (per the script's direction). "It's classic nerd," Stewart says. "I'm going to look like someone who's worked at a lab for 15 or 20 years. I may do the pocket protector. I'm not going to do the tape around the glasses. If anyone's hoping to come out there and see Tennessee Williams, they better turn the car around." Ultimately, what Stewart hopes to deliver is entertainment.

"I would rather do something that's pure entertainment than trying to say something because everyone's trying to say something," he says. "I've heard enough. I don't care. I feel like I have these waves of information coming at me. 'Don't eat that. Do do this. Save the whatever.' I just can't hear it anymore. For me, every day I want to go in and get a couple more laughs, solve a couple more problems. I don't care if it's a cheap laugh. I'm not going out there and appealing to the queen of England. I'm just trying to get as many yuks as I can."

*

`The Nerd'

Where: Colony Theatre, 555 N. 3rd St., Burbank

When: Opens Saturday, 8 p.m. Performances, Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m.; also June 26, July 2 and 3, 8 p.m.; June 14 and 21, 3 p.m. Dark July 4; ends July 6.

Price: Opening night gala, $50; general, $32 to $35; senior citizens and students, $29 to $32

Info: (818) 558-7000, Ext. 15

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