I saw Live Theatre Workshop's production of Larry Shue's The Foreigner on a preview night, and was warned—in person and in the program—that two of the actors had been replaced in recent weeks.
Since The Foreigner is a fast-paced farce—a comedy of deceptions and misunderstandings that depends on confident comic deliveries by the actors—this kind of change could have been rather damaging. But it wasn't.
A phenomenally successful off-Broadway play in the 1980s, The Foreigner is a contemporary one-room farce. LTW has transformed its small space into a believably detailed hunting lodge in rural Georgia, complete with a Big Mouth Billy Bass on the wall, and a mock wood-burning stove. Kudos are definitely due to set designers Richard and Amanda Gremel.
To the lodge arrive Charlie (Rick Shipman) and his friend Froggy (Nick Trice). Froggy is friends with the lodge's elderly owner, Betty (Roxanne Harley), and plans to leave Charlie there for a few days while he goes away on military business. Shy Charlie laments that he doesn't want to talk to strangers—he claims to lack a personality entirely. He's so dull, in fact, that his dying wife wanted him gone from her bedside and pushed him to take this trip.
Charlie claims his wife has had 23 lovers—a hyperbolic number that gives us an early clue that we're in an exaggerated comic world. That world has things in common with our own, but to enjoy the play's absurdity, one must accept that over-the-top happenings are delightfully plausible.
The main absurdity is the play's setup. When Betty laments that she's never seen the world—and has never even met anyone who wasn't from the United States—Froggy has an idea: He'll tell the inhabitants of the small Southern lodge that Charlie is a foreigner who doesn't speak—or understand—a word of English.
Charlie at first resists the suggestion, but plays along when he sees its advantages. He has a cover, for example, for eavesdropping on the relationship problems of Catherine (Cisiany Olivar) and David (Ryan Butler)—and he finds out that David is scheming with local good ol' boy Owen (Patrick Burke) to have Betty's house condemned and to cheat Catherine's brother, sweet but slow Ellard (Paul Matlock), out of his inheritance.
As a "foreigner" who actually understands what's happening all around him, Charlie can subtly manipulate the situation, making the evil schemers David and Owen look foolish, while delighting Catherine, Betty and Ellard as they "teach" him English.
The plot requires some setup, naturally. We need to be introduced to all of the characters, and the nefarious schemes of the villains need to be explained. All the actors do well: Butler as David and Trice as Froggy were the late additions to the cast, but you'd never know it. Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, however, the first half drags a little as the architecture of the plot is developed. Director Chris Wilken also made the curious decision to play slow, sleepy songs before the show and during intermission. They're Southern folk songs, so they fit in thematically with the play, but the soft music makes the energy flag.
However, things really get cooking—on both the plot and acting levels—in the second half, when we get the payoff. Charlie blossoms in his pretend role, making up a language and culture for himself, and conveniently "learning" as much English as he needs. As Charlie's confidence grows, and his love of his fake persona expands, Shipman's performance becomes ever livelier.
The second half also delivers a thematic payoff: We see how Charlie benefits from his kind-hearted host's naïve obsession with "foreign ways," but we also see David and Owen's xenophobia and racism come overtly to the surface. When he feels humiliated by Charlie, Owen goes so far as to bring in the Ku Klux Klan.
It's a tall order to put the KKK onstage and keep the mood funny, but this production manages it. Patrick Burke as Owen gets most of the credit; Burke is a tall, commanding presence, and he's got the most-solid Southern accent of anyone in the cast. He makes Owen believably nasty—but he always keeps Owen comic, never allowing the threat to get too serious.
In fact, with the Klan attempting to drive a fake foreigner away, the play manages to highlight the inherent absurdity of the way in which Americans deal with perceived outsiders: As Owen alternates between awe of the "mysterious power" of foreign Charlie and hatred of Charlie's "strangeness," the play resonates, three decades after it debuted, yet the satire remains light.
All of the characters are a bit absurd and awful (Charlie is practicing an elaborate deception, after all)—and that's part of the fun.