Larry Shue’s 1985 farce The Foreigner is one of those pickle plays to review. As critics, we generally dislike it. We’ve called it a “contrived television sitcom” (Ben Brantley in The New York Times), accused it of “shallow plotting” (Joel Hirschhorn in Variety) and labeled it “simply mindless” and “dimwitted” (Bert Osborne in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution). But ask the audience how it feels about the show and you’ll get a whole different can of worms, and not just because the whole thing takes place in a remote fishing lodge somewhere in rural Georgia.
The thing is, audiences love it. So much so that this is the third time the Alley Theatre has staged the show and the only time in this past theater season that friends overwhelmingly clamored to be my plus one opening night. I went solo, in case you’re wondering, not to deny what’s obviously a not so guilty pleasure from my mates. I couldn’t afford any distraction as I attempted to reconcile these two wildly dichotomous viewpoints of a play that, love it or hate it, seems here to stay.
Realizing I’m blowing the punch line long before the setup here, my feeling is that both sides are correct. Certainly in this production, anyway. Director James Black leads his uniformly superlative cast with impeccable comedic timing that allows plenty of breathing room for characters to shine. It makes for a truly enjoyable production of what is otherwise a thin wisp of a repetitive, jokey idea that gets totally bogged down by an unfortunate toe dip into the cesspool of xenophobia.
But back to the plot. The foundation of the story is actually quite simple and charming in an imperfect kind of way. Sergeant “Froggy” LeSueur (Paul Hope) arranges a three-day mini vacation at a small-town American fishing lodge for his old English civilian friend Charlie Baker (Jeffrey Bean). The getaway is purposefully timed to give Charlie respite from tending to his dying wife, who we learn is not quite as dedicated to the marriage as her dutiful caretaker husband.
The combination of a stressful time, Charlie’s general social phobia and a belief that he’s utterly boring and worthless renders him apoplectic at the thought of having to make small talk with the lodge’s owner, Betty (Annalee Jefferies), and other guests. There’s the engaged couple Reverend David (Jay Sullivan) and Catherine (Elizabeth Bunch); Catherine’s duncey brother Ellard (Jeremy Webb); and the town building inspector, Owen (Chris Hutchinson). Froggy to the rescue again. Knowing that Betty’s unfulfilled lifelong dream has been to travel the world and meet different people, combined with his desire to shield his friend from conversation, leads Froggy to tell everyone that Charlie is a foreigner who doesn’t speak a word of English.
In true farcical-character behavior, the lot of them believe the ruse and proceed to either hold sensitive/private discussions in Charlie’s presence or spill their deepest, darkest to him in the belief that he doesn’t understand anything they reveal. The things Charlie overhears would make TMZ seethe with jealousy. There’s an unwanted pregnancy, a fortune to be inherited, a possible lodge takeover and, most problematic to the flow of the story, a racist conspiracy courtesy of the Klu Klux Klan that is not only ill-matched to the tone of the story but perhaps a tad ill-timed in its minor frivolity given the tragic events of late.
So yeah, there’s a lot of plot forced into this two-act two-ish-hour comedic play that sees Charlie go from wallflower nebbish to savior of the day and spoiler of evil plots. Much of the comedy and story developments fall into the mainstream safety-net variety of easy target comedy. There’s the looping bit where Betty yells as loudly and slowly as possible at Charlie in an attempt to make her English understood. There’s the borderline uncomfortable way Catherine belittles Ellard, her mentally challenged brother. And of course there’s the improbability and predictability of nearly every scenario that is inherent with fluffy farce. It’s enough to make a critic cringe. But for this critic at least, the cringing is matched equally by the genuine amusement that silliness such as this can evoke when done well.
And “done well” is an understatement when describing Bean’s portrayal of Charlie. “How does one acquire a personality?” Charlie asks of Froggy just before he drops him off at the lodge. Bean (in his third time playing the role) initially takes on the persona of a world-weary Mr. Cellophane. With deft physical prowess, Bean shrugs, squirms and gives tight-lipped smiles as the mute foreigner all the while revelling in the information he’s overhearing. The comedy here comes from Bean’s subtle and not so subtle wordless reactions, and it’s masterful to watch.
Gaining more confidence (and a personality based on how others see him), Charlie begins to learn and speak English which is delivered with an accent that sounds like a mashup between Sesame Street’s The Count, Andy Kaufman’s Latka Gravas and Stephan from SNL. Metaphor’s aside, the accent is funny and it totally works. Bean’s lingo works even better when he attempts to speak his “native” tongue, a smorgasbord of every foreign-language phrase he can think of with a bit of pig Latin thrown in. Nowhere is Bean’s command of this process better illustrated than in his wildly hysterical telling of a story to the lodge guests eager to hear Charlie pontificate in his mother tongue. A combination of several Grimm’s fairy tales told in a vaguely Slavic-sounding baby-talk parlance and Bean’s expressive physicality brings the house down and shows that the third time’s obviously the charm for learning how to ooze every ounce of funny from this character.
Bean’s supporting cast also captures our attention by leaping hackneyed hurdles to deliver their own terrific performances. Hope’s Froggy sounds vaguely Australian rather than British, but no matter. A big presence onstage, Hope fulfills his straight-man duties with aplomb. As lodge owner Betty, Jefferies channels her best ignorant but well-meaning spunky Southern small-town woman-in-her-golden-years. Being saddled with the most lowbrow and repetitive humor of the play (including Betty’s insistence that she can understand Charlie at all times), Jefferies has the biggest challenge in making her character palatable for two acts. By injecting a warm sweetness to Betty’s dottiness, Jefferies ensures that even if we tire of her gags, we are still rooting for her and giggling along the way.
Bunch and Webb as sister and brother Catherine and Ellard serve as opposite poles in the show. Bunch’s ex-debutante Catherine is prickly and bossy, but not so much that we don’t warm to her as she warms to Charlie. Webb’s Ellard has our hearts from the start like a wounded bird with his addled brain and slapstick moves that gracefully stay just this side of overblown. As the obvious and not so obvious bad guys in the plot, Hutchinson’s Owen and Sullivan’s David give us the show’s most improbable and thinly drawn characters with as much texture as possible.
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Texture also comes in this production courtesy of Kevin Rigdon’s imagining of a slightly run-down but cozy wood-paneled lodge complete with mismatched plaid upholstery, crochet and bearskin rugs and deer antler chandeliers. All the action takes place in the lodge’s lobby, and thanks to a good helping of visual interest on set, we never tire of the one-room offering.
On the way out of the theater, thinking about all the things that worked in this production but are egregiously problematic with the play itself, I overheard a young girl excitedly talking to her mother. “That was so good and so fun and stuff,” she chirped. While calling this play good might be pushing it from a purely critical point of view, I will absolutely concur with the young lass and say that yes, it was a lot of fun and stuff.
Through August 9 at Alley Theatre at UH, 4116 Elgin. 7130220-5700, alleytheatre.org.