A shy, repressed Englishman with the personality of a wet noodle discovers his own inner greatness by pretending not to speak a word of his native tongue in Larry Shue’s The Foreigner, not only one of the 20th Century’s funniest plays, but one of the century’s truly great comedies, one whose revival by Crown City Theatre Company will leave you delirious with laughter and brimming with joy.
Snooty New York drama critics didn’t “get” The Foreigner when it made its off-Broadway debut back in 1983, but playwright Shue has had the last laugh up in playwrights’ heaven. (His untimely plane crash death in 1985 robbed us of a writer whose talents were only beginning to be revealed.) Shue’s second and final play not only went on to win two Obie Awards and two Outer Critics Circle Awards as Best New American Play and Best Off-Broadway Production, The Foreigner’s nigh-on perfect Crown City revival proves that it has withstood the greatest test—that of time. It is perhaps even funnier and more relevant in 2014 than it was thirty-one years ago.
The Foreigner’s setup is a simple one. Pathologically shy Brit Charlie Baker (Brian Graves) learns to his dismay that his traveling buddy Sergeant “Froggy” LeSeuer (David Ghilardi) plans to abandon him for several days at the small-town Georgia fishing lodge whose elderly owner Betty Meeks (Nan Tepper) Froggy has gotten to know over the years on his official trips to the U.S. When Charlie expresses horror that he will actually have to make conversation with Betty and other assorted locals during Froggy’s absence, the Army officer offers his mate the ideal solution. Act the part of someone who knows not a word of English and Charlie will be left blissfully alone.
To say that things don’t quite work out according to plan is perhaps the understatement of the century. Just ask Betty and the rest of the “local yokels,” who discover their inner strengths and smarts thanks to this unwitting “visitor from a foreign land.”
Charlie’s supposed inability to understand what the folks around him are saying renders him virtually invisible, allowing him not just to eavesdrop on secrets (like an unplanned pregnancy), but to uncover a dastardly scheme to take control of Betty’s inn, a secret plot that could well put Charlie’s and Betty’s lives, and the lives of those Charlie comes to care about, in jeopard.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
First of all, Charlie must make the acquaintance of The Foreigner’s delightfully offbeat cast of characters.
There’s hunky young local preacher David Marshall Lee (Jake Head), whose plans to wed ex-debutante Catherine Simms (Kelly Huddleston) mask an ulterior motive—Catherine’s small fortune, half of which he can take control of by marrying her, the other half of which will also be his if he can convince his intended that her younger brother Ellard (Adam Simon Krist) is the simpleton everyone says he is.
Meanwhile, local scumbag Owen Musser (Ian Patrick Willams) plans to use his position as county property inspector to have Betty’s lodge condemned, thereby allowing David to purchase it with Catherine’s inheritance and turn it into a “Christian hunt club,” a euphemism for something considerably more hateful.
Playwright Shue keeps us doubled over with laughter as Betty, Catherine, and Ellard react in unexpected ways to a foreigner’s presence in their midst.
Betty could not be more thrilled at having Charlie as her lodge guest. She delights in believing she’s taught him his first words of English (“Thank you”), finds things of beauty in his foreign ways (who knew that foreigners placed empty orange juice glasses upside-down atop their heads while eating breakfast?), and rediscovers long-lost talents like playing the harmonica.
Meanwhile, it’s thanks to Charlie that Catherine realizes she is worth a good deal more than her debutante past and her considerable inheritance; she finds out for the first time what it’s like to have someone truly listen to her, even if the listener in question couldn’t speak a word of English a day or two ago.
And then there’s Ellard, whom Charlie has generously allowed to take full credit for his miraculous overnight acquisition of English as a second language, and whom Charlie soon has reading Shakespeare and perhaps even understanding what he reads.
If all this seems simply too absurd to be true, well so it is … and so what? Much of the joy of watching this “foreigner” work his magic on Betty, Catherine, and Ellard is in just how patently, gleefully ridiculous the whole thing is.
Still, The Foreigner wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does were there not an underlying level of seriousness throughout. Owen and David are no black-hatted, mustache-twirling villains but frightening real creations, as real as those who spew hatred in 2014 while going about their plans for “a Christian, white nation,” one without “foreigners, Jews, and Catholics.” (That’s preacher David speaking, by the way, and if he doesn’t add “queers” to the list, then it’s simply because they were still relatively under the radar back in 1983.)
Many of The Foreigner’s most outrageously funny sequences have become comedy classics—Ellard’s ESL lessons, one-syllable words stretched out Georgia-style (Ellard actually considers “fork” two words, “faw” and “werk”), Charlie teaching the locals his native tongue (“Gok” is “yes” and “blit” is “no”), Charlie having Owen believing he’s possessed by some voodoo devil (“Gonna look tru your bones, when de bees come down!”), and so on, and so forth. Pure genius.
At the same time, when Shue allows things to get dark in The Foreigner’s edge-of-your seat climactic minutes, he has earned the shivers he inspires through his play’s cleverly constructed setup and by making us believe in his wild and crazy cast of characters.
If director Joanne McGee and her cast tend to overplay the physical comedy a tad in The Foreigner’s earliest moments (the phone cord schtick could be axed, for example), other than that performances are comedic perfection from an all-around splendid troupe, some of whom may be members of Actors Equity. (The program doesn’t specify which.)
An absolutely droll Graves is the linchpin around whom everything revolves, and he is an adorable delight from start to finish. Tepper’s sweetly befuddled Betty is another gem of a performance from the venerable stage vet, while relative newcomers Huddleston and Krist simply could not be more marvelous as a woman discovering her self-worth and a teenager discovering his inner smarts. A terrific Head easily convinces us that he’s the local high school’s sexy quarterback gone evil post graduation, particularly when in cahoots with the bile-filled Owen, straight out of Deliverance and scary as hell as played by an excellent Williams. Ghilardi gets less stage time as Froggy, but his performance as Cockney Froggy is as spot-on as his castmates’.
In addition to directing The Foreigner, McGee has designed its meticulously detailed set (kudos too to prop designer Keiko Moreno), a scenic design which Anna Cecelia Martín lights to striking effect, particularly in the play’s suspenseful climax. Tanya Apuya’s costumes suit each character to a T (or to a KKK). Best of all may be Nikko Tsiotsias’s intricate sound design, a masterful mix of effects.
Zad Potter is production stage manager. Gary Lamb is executive producer, technical director, and co-artistic director; Oriana Havlicek is house and literary manager; and William A. Reilly is producer, co-artistic director.
It’s been quite a year for Crown City Theatre Company, from Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Company, which opened last February and played on and on and on, to the World Premiere Night Hawks, which merited its own extension, to I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, which opened in September and ran until just a couple of weeks ago.
Now there is The Foreigner, long due for a local revival, a Crown City treat which merits its own extended run. Filled with laughter, spiked with suspense, and sprinkled with just the right amount of heart, this is one Foreigner who deserves, if not permanent residence, then at least to be allowed a long-term stay amongst us.
Crown City Theater, St. Matthew’s Church, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood.
February 20, 2014
Photos: Keiko Moreno