The set-up: Pathologically shy Englishman Charlie (Jeffrey Lane), a dear friend of U.K. staff sergeant Froggy (Steven Fenley), is brought by his friend to a fishing lodge in rural Georgia for a much-needed R&R to cheer him up after learning of his wife's cancer and, more shocking, her constant infidelities -- twenty-three by her own count. Charlie's so sadly shy, Froggy invents a story that he can't speak English and doesn't understand a word anyone says. Naturally, the locals at the lodge, soon to be condemned to make way for a KKK mega-hotel, confide in this silent confessor and reveal all their secrets and desires. Seeing the changes he causes, Charlie, too, emerges from his shell and sets everything right.
The execution: Larry Shue's phenomenally successful work (1983), a staple of regional theaters as often performed as his earlier The Nerd (1981), receives a delightfully inventive production at Texas Repertory Theatre. With two incandescent performances (Mr. Lane and Timothy Evers, as backward backwoods Ellard) anchoring all the other very fine ones, this rollicking comedy with its undertones of xenophobia and otherness, is danged near irresistible and, in the word used most often throughout the play, "remarkable."
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When Lane, as Charlie, starts to emerge as social butterfly, his physical comedy intensifies, until he's bopping across the stage like a living hieroglyphic. His performance has true shadings of silent film comedy about it, and his transformation from troubled nerd into uncontrollable id is an acting master class in making it all look effortless.
Evers, whose indelible Houston performances have included Victorian prig Reverend Monger in Nova Arts' Love Loves a Pornographer and dry Restoration wit Samuel Pepys in Mildred's Umbrella's Compleat Female Stage Beauty, adds yet another delectable characterization as "slow" Ellard. Evers creates an entire person with simple physical details that etch his character like acid. His fingers twitch and bend like Ellard's unused mind, searching through his hair for answers or forever fixing his suspenders that need no fixing. Ellard is ready to fly. He just needs the push off the cliff that Charlie unwittingly supplies (according to the program, Evers is soon off to Glasgow's Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. He will succeed magnificently, and we pray he returns).
The verdict: Playwright Shue, dying in a plane crash soon after The Foreigner's off -Broadway premiere, never lived to see how successful his play would become. Under director Walter Baker, TRT's superlative production (with Alan Hall, Lauren Dolk, Rachel Mattox, David Walker) allows us, without exception, to turn into our own butterflies.
Through June 5. Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline Rd. 281-583-7573.