Ted L. Nancy in Letters From a Nut by Ted L. Nancy, directed by Pierre Balloón, at the Geffen Playhouse.
Ted L. Nancy in Letters From a Nut by Ted L. Nancy, directed by Pierre Balloón, at the Geffen Playhouse.
(© Chris Whitaker)

Remember The Jerky Boys, practical jokers who harassed unsuspecting dupes on the telephone in the 1990s? Stand-up comedian Ted Nancy (nom de plume of Barry Marder) has made a career of reviving that art. Now he has turned his life's work into a performance-art piece. There are some clever observations and healthy chuckles, but for the most part, Letters From a Nut by Ted L. Nancy, now running at the Geffen Playhouse, features too much stale humor and wears out its welcome long before the end of its 70-minute runtime.

Based on a series of comedy books, Letters features a succession of letters Nancy wrote to corporations and heads of state asking inane questions to crack the armor of customer-service professionals throughout the world. Spurred on by a request he read on a bag of Fritos chips to write in with questions about their product, Nancy wrote countless letters to them and other corporations including Ralphs grocery stores, Nordstrom's department store, and even the leader of Greenland. The letters were bursting with non sequiturs and peculiar requests. Nancy reads his letters while actor Beth Kennedy portrays the victims of his pranks in an array of wigs and exaggerated accents.

When you have essentially two people onstage talking, the material must crackle. And that's the biggest issue with Letters: It's inert. The letters Nancy reads are droll at best; more often they are dross. It's a one-note joke, always at the expense of people who are just trying to do their jobs. Nancy is not aiming at the perpetrators of high hypocrisy here, just average people trying their best to bring their customers service. If the humor was at least shrewd, the audience would forgive a lot, but most of his jokes are easy targets.

Coming from the world of stand-up, there's an expectation that Nancy would have a dynamic personality and a certain level of comfort with being onstage, but often he exerts timidity. The few times he walks away from the desk to center stage, he fists his hand awkwardly, making him often uncomfortable to watch.

Kennedy, always a gem as a lead member of the comedy troupe the Troubadours, is given little material to excel. Director Pierre Balloón allows Kennedy's characterizations to border on cheap stereotypes. She never creates fleshed-out characters, only weak foils for Nancy.

The projections, with illustrations by Alan Marder and video by Carolla Digital, have a cheap 1980s V.H.S. look. Some of the videos go on too long, like an oddity about turning remnants from a sofa into a chocolate dish for human consumption. Daniel Ionazzi's functional set of two desks grounds the show in a level of realism among the absurdity.

Letters From a Nut by Ted L. Nancy fails as both a piece of theater and as a satire. Though people may be drawn to the show because Seinfeld has attached his name, the sophistication usually associated with his brand of comedy is sorely missed here.