The Foreigner showcases Western Stage talent taking on goofy-fun script.
Thursday, October 28, 2010
Poor Charlie. Here’s a sorry chap who’s unrepentantly unfaithful wife, though “dying” in a hospital room in England, wants only for him to go away to America for the weekend. And why?
“Mary finds me shatteringly, profoundly boring,” he confesses to his gregarious British buddy, Sargeant Froggy (Jeffrey T. Heyer, looking and sounding like a commoner Gen. Montgomery in cammos). They’re entering the empty, rustic Georgia fishing lodge of Froggy’s spitfire friend, Betty (played with gumption and Southern hospitality in overalls by Pat Horsley).
“You caught her making flirty eyes with some bloke?” Froggy asks.
“Yeahhhh,” Charlie says meekly.
“In the shower.”
Ow. There are stingers like these all throughout the Obie – and Outer Circle Award-winning 1984 comedy, which is vital, because they keep it out of the situational comedy track it threatens to careen onto.
Charlie (a precisely cast Paul Stout) is the stereotypically mushy Milquetoast Brit: He stutters and stammers, he’s cripplingly afraid of new people, and is out of his element in the rough-trod Georgia backwoods.
Through some convoluted but not illogical mechanics of plot, to avoid interacting with the other guests of the lodge, Charlie upholds Froggy’s lie that Charlie is a foreigner who speaks not a lick of English. He overhears a private conversation between a charming and dapper Rev. David Marshall Lee (Mike Rainey) and his fiancee Catherine (Kate McGrath), for which he has to keep the ruse to preserve the honor of Catherine. When Owen, a self-described hick, played with menacing glee by Tom Hepner, enters the fray, you wouldn’t be far off to recall Dwight Yokam’s bad-guy presence in the film Sling Blade.
In quick succession, Froggy disappears after getting his nebbish friend situated, wherein the hijinx commence. It’s low-brow stuff, easy to follow and bolstered with clever wordplay and criss-crossed wires.
The main plot device lies in Charlie speaking a made-up gibberish, feigning a foreign language like Andy Kaufmann did with his Latka character on Taxi.
“Hide-gee da bumski ina de woodski,” he says, regaling his fellow lodgers with a story. (“Hide your ass in the woods,” maybe?). Betty and Catherine think they can make out his mumbo jumbo and we, the audience, sort of can, too. The Southern and British accents are spot-on, especially when Catherine’s “touched” little brother, Ellard (precocious and earnest, as played by Taylor Landees), makes the first breakthrough with their reticent “foreign” friend through a cute pantomime, then presumably teaches him English: Fork is pronounced “fo-wark” and even “lamp” earns two syllables as “luh-amp.”
Director William J. Wolak and the assured cast keep the convoluted plot and character dynamics well-oiled as it ramps up to a big, threatening climax. The second act doesn’t lag as the laughs among the Studio Stage audience only grow more boisterous and spontaneous. Along the way, recurring jokes, like motifs of wordplay, keep popping up like popcorn.
Stout acted in the drama Rabbit Hole at the Studio Theater two years ago, where his broad, overheated performance stuck out in the midst of a subtler cast, but here it works. Here, his expressive eyes go to work, letting us know he’s watching things transpire along with the audience, without receding completely into the sumptuous set. Here, Charlie slowly climbs out of his shell and ramps up his engagement with the other characters, getting goofier and more amused as he goes.
But McGrath, as Catherine, gives maybe the most confident and nuanced performances of the cast. There’s a scene in which she cries, then laughs and sucks it up, then cries again, not able to keep up the tough-gal conceit. This girl says what she thinks and acts what she feels, and provides needed ballast to the near caricatures of the others.
The clash of two distinct, but not unrelated, cultures – British and Southern – is interesting, and playwright Larry Shue has fun with the contrast, but it’s his command of each dialect that is impressive. When Betty offers Charlie a bowl of hominy grits, Charlie mistakenly hears “how many grits,” and guesses how many flecks of the mashed corn there are. Froggy, who pops in to kind of bookend each act, throws around such Anglophilia like “bloke” and “chap” in phrases that sound like they’re from The Bridge on the River Kwai.
There’s not much in the way of a bigger message or overriding philosophy to The Foreigner, except maybe that xenophobia is bad, engaging with others is good – and “Oh what a tangled web we weave” – but it’s not total fluff. The plot about the lodge being condemned by ne’er-do-wells on the grounds of structural deficiencies seems totally plausible and detailed in fact. Playwright Shue, who also wrote the similarly popular comedy The Nerd, goes for belly laughs without bypassing our brains. The effect? You leave the theater with few stray plot strands to sort out, not too rigorously challenged, but satisfied like you just ate a quick, simple meal, and enjoyed every part of it.