Critic's PickI’ve seen Ken Shue’s 1984 comedy The Foreigner in several good productions. It’s one of the funniest plays I know, a well-oiled laugh machine, but if you anticipate what’s happening, you’d think it would diminish the humor. That might be true with some productions, but as staged by Ed Cohen with a talented cast for the Commonwealth Theatre Company at Northern Kentucky University, it had me laughing out loud.
This time of year there’s a shortage of theater in Greater Cincinnati, and I must admit I went to see this because it was the only thing onstage in early July. I know NKU grad Roderick Justice as a talented performer, but I thought him a tad young for this role. Boy, was I wrong: I don’t think I’ve ever seen the role of painfully shy Charlie Baker coming out of his shell played with more finesse, humor and impeccable timing.
Here’s the story: Charlie, a Brit who’s marriage is on the rocks, is talked into a getaway to rural Georgia in the U.S. by his friend, Staff Sergeant “Froggy” LeSueur (Dain Alan Paige), who’s annually brought in for military mentoring about demolition. Charlie, who acknowledges that he’s “shatteringly, profoundly boring” has not a shred of self-confidence, so her seriously balks when he learns that Froggy is leaving him for several days at a fishing lodge. In hopes of making things easier for him, Froggy tells Betty (Dee Anne Bryll), the owner, that his friend is a foreigner who is embarrassed about speaking no English. He’s instantly privy to conversations about nefarious goings-on, since no one thinks he understands what’s being said.
Charlie’s cover sets up numerous comic moments.
Kind-hearted Betty believes that speaking louder will make her easier to understand. She’s being set up for a fraudulent buy-out of her inn by a devious but stupid redneck, Owen Musser (played with seedy, snaggle-toothed enthusiasm by Sean Harkless), and a holier-than-thou minister David (Grayson Wittenbarger), who’s secretly in league to create a national center of operations for the Ku Klux Klan. David also happens to be engaged to a spoiled one-time debutante Catherine (Liz Sunderhaus), the heir to some significant funds that she might or might not share with her dimwitted brother Ellard (Kyle Imbronyev).
Pairing Justice’s knowing but reticent Charlie with each of these characters results in delightful tomfoolery. Ellard teaches Charlie to speak English; Charlie provides Catherine with a confidante to share her concerns about her fiancé; and he gets under Owen’s skin in a multitude of ways by being obligingly stupid. When Justice and Imbronyev enact a breakfast-table scene with Ellard instructing Charlie (who is actually a well-read proofreader in England) simple words through the filter of a George accent, it’s a classic of verbal comedy: The word “fork,” Ellard patiently explains, has two parts — “fo-werk.” Justice exaggeratedly repeats the lesson, to Ellard’s delight. At another point, Charlie tells his friends a story in his “native tongue,” a stream of semi-intelligible gibberish that sounds like Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, but with much physical and verbal embroidery.
Equally hilarious is a prolonged scene in which Charlie toys with Owen, who’s holding a map of Georgia while Charlie demonstrates the distance to his home. When Justice portrays Charlie’s ability play on Owen’s gullibility by acting as if he’s possessed — well, you just have to be there. Harkless’s cowering reaction is as priceless as Justice’s ridiculously bombastic threats and crazed demeanor.
As with all good comedies, The Foreigner sorts itself out neatly and happily, with Charlie realizing he has made a difference in the lives of people he cares about. Cohen’s direction keeps the comedy moving and cast’s momentum at just the right pace: They push the humor to a high level, but never let it slip out of control. As Charlie sees he can influence events, Justice provides fleeting glimpses of amusement, understanding and astonishment. He is physically fluid and verbally adept (his weird accent and forced pitch is as intelligible as it is nonsensical), and his performance is a textbook case in comic acting.
The story is set in a popular fishing lodge that’s supposed to be an institution. While it has authentic details, it also appears to have opened yesterday — not a sign of wear and tear. Of course, that could be a metaphor for The Foreigner’s humor, still fresh after almost 30 years.
THE FOREIGNER, presented by the Commonwealth Theatre Company at Northern Kentucky University, continues through July 22.