New Century Theatre’s latest play, The Foreigner, was staged in a new venue for the summer troupe’s 27th season opener–the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School in South Hadley. Despite this somewhat unfamiliar venue, for the first time outside the familiar confines of Smith’s Mendenhall Center, the crowd was strong and enthusiastic about Larry Shue’s play, which has been a staple of community theater since it was written in 1984.
The popular comedy, which had a 686-performance run on Broadway starting in 1984, is an old-school farce, and it takes the audience into uncharted waters, mixing a little thinking in with the laughs. It starts off a bit slowly, set in a rural Georgia fishing lodge where two Englishmen show up for the night. The laughs take a while as the scene is set. Froggy LeSueur is a British Sergeant who is a bomb expert, and with him is a recently jilted pal, named Charlie Baker, who clearly doesn’t want to have to talk about his hospitalized wife among these strangers. “I shouldn’t have left her in the hospital, why am I here in Georgia?” he says.
At first, I found myself frustrated by Charlie–wincing in pain, a man tormented by the prospect of having to tell anyone anything about his situation, clearly not able to communicate in any language. “She finds me boring,” he says. Me too.
So in the true farce-like manner, his soldier friend hatches a plan. “Just pretend you don’t speak a word of English, Charlie, and nobody will speak to you for the whole three days.” It sounds easy, but …. this is a farce, so nothing is easy. But Froggy’s plan ends up making Charlie the Most Interesting Man in the World. Because down here in Alabama, they don’t get to see many foreigners, (or Jews, or gays, it appears.)
Sarah Blaney does a fine job with her performance as Catherine Simms, a ‘debutante’ who is engaged to a fellow even she isn’t sure she knows that well, Rev. David Marshall Lee, played with a devious charm by Scott Braidman. She blurts out that she’s expecting a baby right in front of Charlie, who tries to remain inconspicuous as he fades into the chair, but Catherine is incensed when she accuses him of listening in on their personal conversation. She doesn’t know what to think about the man she’s supposed to marry. “He’s so good that you feel vile around him,” she laments.
Charlie begins to slip into character–remember, he doesn’t understand a word of English– and babbles in his own unique blend of Borat and Putin, a funny interpretation of what we might think foreigners sound like. He throws in the occasional Mexican culinary term to spice up his made up language, too. Everyone is intrigued, including Betty Meeks, played with spunk by Ellen Barry. Charlie’s five-minute ‘story’ in his own language is a brilliant riff. We wondered if any of it was scripted or was he just doing it all by improv. It’s hilarious and cements his foreigner’s credentials to everyone.
We see the hole that deception digs, as more and more of the characters find confiding in a man who doesn’t speak any English to be oddly reassuring. Catherine shares many more of her personal details, since “he’s the best listener ever!” There’s no turning back, Charlie realizes, so he runs with it and begins to feel a little power.
Even the sleazy Reverend and redneck local, Owen Musser, can’t resist babbling at Charlie thinking it’s all going over his head. There is something satisfying about this notion, like when an American stuns a Chinese crowd by answering back in fluent Mandarin.
There is also Ellard, Catherine’s intellectually-challenged younger brother, who thinks he can teach Charlie English. He can’t believe how fast the man picks up vocabulary, despite his comically thick Eastern-European accent. By God, I think he’s got it! Amazing that in two days he’s already almost fluent, as Ellard teaches him not only vocabulary but how to say it in a thick southern drawl.
But there is a dark side to this farce, and it has to do with a plot to condemn the land that Betty Meek’s fishing resort is built on, hatched by the Reverend and Owen. But Owen is no match for Charlie who taunts the racist bigot with made up gobbledygook that causes the older man to flee. Darker still is Owen’s association with the KKK that threatens any foreigner in these parts. Owen Musser is a klansman, and he’s going to bring his terrifying white-robed gang of thugs up the hill to threaten “Jews, Gays, and foreigners.” Whites are the only accepted race in these parts, according to these characters.
There is a moment late in the play when the sight of the hooded KKK, holding guns and threatening our friends on stage, that is genuinely scary, and like any good farce, in a matter of minutes and through a clever twist, the men flee after Charlie tricks them into thinking he’s a crazy voodoo man. In these times of Nationalist talk and a fear that we’re losing our national tolerance, this play sends shivers up the spine. How far away is the Klan, or its sympathizers, anyway?
It takes a fake foreigner to teach the lesson that we all belong and there is no room for white-robed thugs, in Georgia or anywhere else.
The Foreigner has four more performances in South Hadley through July 23. Visit New Century Theatre for tickets or call 413-587-3933.