English Muffin

This summer has been unusually generous to theater-loving Houstonians. Jammed full of glimmering little gems -- nothing serious, just trinkets -- the season has been one of the most delightful in years. And the Alley Theatre's reprisal of Larry Shue's frothy if slightly bent comedy The Foreigner, about a handful of backwoods Southerners who thwart the Ku Klux Klan, keeps the fun alive.

The unlikely story starts with a compelling, farcical setup. Sergeant Froggy Le Sueur (Paul Hope) chaperones his good buddy Charlie Baker (Jeffrey Bean) from England to a country lodge in Georgia, of all places. Poor, shy Charlie plans to recover there from a breaking heart so that he might return home and deal more capably with his wife's illness. He feels just sick about leaving his ailing spouse, but she was glad to see him go because he's just so "shatteringly, profoundly boring."

Le Sueur has to take care of some business, so he leaves Charlie alone for three days at a run-down bed-and-breakfast owned by Betty Meeks (Bettye Fitzpatrick). But the thought of being stranded with strangers is terrible; shy Charlie is so flummoxed that La Sueur decides to tell every twang-talking American at the inn that Charlie is a foreigner and doesn't speak a word of English. Furthermore, he advises that nobody should speak to Charlie, for it "shames" him that he can't talk back.

Like some throwback to the I Love Lucy days, the setup creates lots of opportunities for silly antics by Charlie. And Bean takes full advantage, clowning through the show with some of the funniest slapstick this side of the Marx Brothers. Even the simple act of eating fried eggs becomes an opportunity for horseplay; then there are all the times he gets to poke fun at the small-minded Southerners who drop by Betty's place, full of meanness toward all things foreign. And on opening night, when Charlie told a story in his "native tongue," full of strangely familiar-sounding words like "hopitsky" and "skipitsky," the audience screamed with laughter.

The fact that director James Black partnered Bean with Houston's supreme clown, John Tyson, only makes the laughs exponentially louder. As the sweetly slow-witted Ellard Simms, Tyson sends the audiences into giggles with his perfectly lanky Southern drawl as he tries to teach Charlie English. Fork becomes "fa-work," lamp is "lay-ump," and knife is "nave." Charlie, of course, repeats each lesson with double-wide vowel accuracy.

Charlie's feigned inability to speak or understand English provides more than laughs; the entire plot hinges on foolish Owen Musser (played with pitch-perfect accuracy by Black) discussing his rotten Klan plans in front of Charlie.

He also tries to bully Charlie by making fun of him; Owen is the perfect schoolyard henchman when he giggles that he can say anything he wants to Charlie as long as he smiles. Of course, Charlie is witheringly patient with Owen -- that is, until he gets an opportunity to pay him back in a hilarious scene that involves dissolving a Klansman into a puddle of white sheet.

Though this is definitely a testosterone-driven story, both women in the tale hold their own. Elizabeth Heflin makes a pretty, pouty Catherine Simms. A small-time heiress who's left to care for her brother Ellard, Catherine finds herself in an increasingly bad situation. Of course, only Charlie can offer her all that she deserves in the way of companionship.

As Meeks, Fitzpatrick is the salt of the earth, a housemother extraordinaire. She also gets her fair share of laughs as Meeks muddles her way through, trying to fuss properly over a supposed foreigner. She politely shouts in his ear every time she speaks to him, noting later that he doesn't understand English even when it's real loud. Believing that she has an "extra-circular" connection to Charlie, Meeks fairly blooms in the man's presence as she proudly interprets (often wrongly) everything he does.

Black's direction is exuberant. He's clearly enjoying everything his comedic cast has to offer. Even straight-man Hope shows off a dead-on comic timing to Charlie's antics. He can turn an "oh" or a "yes" into crescendos of laughter. And from Bean and Tyson, Black creates comedic magic.

The Foreigner is certainly not rock-your-world theater, but it may be one of the best diversions from the heat anywhere this summer.