A number of conversational styles emerge in Larry Shue's deceptively simple yet profound comedy The Foreigner,
but the strongest one comes after hitting the mute button. The Obie and Outer Critics Circle Award-winner of the mid-1980s,
now receiving a delightful revival at the Bay Theatre Company (until 1/8), still delivers its timeless message on the fine art of listening.
This mainstay of the repertory and community theater is trotted out from time to time like clockwork, but seldom
as successfully as the well directed and well acted production now being performed in Annapolis. Vincent Lancisi's
clear and insightful staging, reveals every verbal and nonverbal comedic line in the script, and his actors deliver them on
cue (for the first week of its run, the timing is impeccable).
Two Englishmen - one an Army demolition expert and his friend, a former officer, but now a sci-fi proofreader - arrive
for a long weekend at a fishing lodge in rural Georgia. The former, a gregarious sort of Monty Pythonish noncom named
Froggy (Brit Herring) is on assignment for a mountaintop removal project with the locals, but he's also looking to reclaim
his shy friend Charlie (Bill Largess) from a deep funk. This being the South, there's an assortment of quirky characters
with problems galore led by lodge-owner Betty (Rena Cherry Brown), a minister (Peter Wray), his girl friend (Annie Grier)
and her brother (Sean McComas), along with a good ole boy building inspector (Stephen Patrick Martin), all of whom need something
more than words can say. What to do? Why, cast Charlie (whom Mr. Largess wonderfully realizes) in a role of a
lifetime as a non-English speaking foreigner.
This phase shift has a freeing quality for Mr. Largess's character, almost like humming for a stutterer, and
the actor, it seems to me, has never found a part better suited to his comic skills. But it also unlocks the personae
of the rest of the cast, who find their voices (some sinister) in thought, word, and deed as the intersecting plotlines unfold.
For starters, there's a confidence game, an unexpected pregnancy, a land grab, and a terrorist plot or two that are revealed
to the increasingly savvy Charlie, whose accent begins to take an Eastern European locus. If all this sounds preposterous,
well it is; but you won't notice or mind, just as opera fans overlook the fantastic librettos tossed their way in favor
of the music. In the case of this nimbly directed show, the humor serves that purpose.
Ms. Brown as the determined but warmhearted Betty channels Granny Clampett at her feistiest
while Ms. Grier as the spirited Catherine crafts a modern version of Southern womanhood, part Belle, part Deb, but all for
the underdog. Her stage brother Ellard is given a compelling turn by Mr. McComas as the slow-witted but lovable child
of fortune from whom we all have much to learn. Twin heavies of the Apocalypse, Messrs. Wray and Martin as David (Rev.
Lee) and Owen, respectively, come as false prophets, two opposite tunes sung in the wrong key; they'll both give you shudders
- Mr. Wray as sweet-spoken conniver, Mr. Martin as the cordite-trailing but ultimately craven thug. Mr. Herring (last
seen as the serious John in Lips Together, Teeth Apart at BTC) shows amazing range as he opens and closes the play
in high comic form.
audiences are not likely to miss the send-up (or smackdown) of xenophobia and its practitioners. But they're also
sure to get, on some level, the language games, sociological issues, and psychology of everyday life, with which the play
abounds. Words that are out there - spewed forth by the culture or plain discarded - may be picked up and used as weapons.
Charlie has a portmanteau vocabulary at his fingertips from his work life, but the environment and his quick study of it furnish
the rest. The perspective from which people are viewed, perhaps placed, often determines our judgment of them.
Ellard is the victim of a "crazy making" scenario as is Charlie to a more or less innocuous degree. You see
the person you are conditioned to see. The road to recovery seems to lie in teaching - acquiring knowledge for its own
sake or for others'. And each of the characters has a weakness that another is seeking to probe and exploit.
Greggory Schraven's intricate set has a lived-in
look, with an eclectic mix of densely packed club furniture, wall hangings and props nicely assembled thanks to JoAnn Gidos.
Costume designer Rebecca Eastman has dressed the actors with care matching their color schemes and social stations well.
The small stage at the Bay Theatre seems to be positioned at the focal point for most viewers, almost like a television set
design. All that was required was Andrew F. Griffin's precise lighting and the suggestive sound of Christopher Baine
to animate the picture.
Foreigner was written in the early 1980s during a post-war (and Cold War) period of economic woe, when the hunt for a
scapegoat was the order of the day. But while such a search has been an unfortunate aspect of the American experience
today and back to The Civil War (which the play makes painfully clear), it has no borders as a casual glance at the news suggests.
Outsiders, Others, or Strangers have a paradoxical hold on us, attracting us with their exotic nature while, with those same
qualities, repulsing us - sometimes both at once.
don't get too hung up on the deep meanings of the play. There's a lot of fun in store for theatergoers and a
wonderful piece of stage business at the finale. A comedy which will make you think - now that's something
to celebrate this holiday season!
Sound check: Excellent, with low sound levels - acoustics allowed
for great clarity in diction. Sound did not overpower production
Program notes: Good with artistic director and director's notes and cast and creative team (missing set
designer) bios. Some confusion on artistic team versus BTC production staff credits. Might have benefited from
Applause meter: Highly recommended,
4 ½ hands (out of 5)
Moment of the play: Charlie's
storytelling riff as enacted by Bill Largess in Act II
of the Play: 1) Director Vincent Lancisi, 2) Bill Largess as Charlie, 3) Ensemble Cast
Runtime: About 2 hours and 20 minutes with an intermission
Photo credit: Stan Barouh
John F. Glass December 13, 2010 - All rights reserved