It’s a good sign when you hear people laughing in the parking lot after a comedy and describing their favorite moments to each other, complete with crazy gestures. In its second week of a now-extended run, The Foreigner was still filling the comfortably worn auditorium of the John Hand Theater. The play is comfortably worn, too. Written in 1984 by Larry Shue, who died in a plane crash a year later, The Foreigner received lukewarm reviews from the New York critics, but won two Outer Critics Circle awards, and has since received countless performances around the country.
The plot is one good reason for its popularity. A pathologically shy English proofreader named Charlie arrives with his friend, ex-military man and demolitions expert Froggy, at a fishing lodge in deepest Georgia. Charlie’s wife cheats on him, and also might be dying — and he has no idea how to deal with either of these crises. Charlie is so terrified of meeting new people that Froggy attempts to rescue him by telling Betty, the lodge owner, that he’s a foreigner from an unspecified country and doesn’t understand English. But Betty has never met an actual foreigner, and is so intrigued that she simply can’t leave poor Charlie alone. Unendurably embarrassed, Charlie contemplates coming clean, but his silence spurs the other characters to either ignore him or pour out their secrets — secrets that involve profound inner feelings or evil plotting, including a plan by the Ku Klux Klan to take over the lodge and make it a center for world domination. Pretty soon, shy, reclusive Charlie is up to his eyeballs trying to protect kindly Betty, sad onetime debutante Catherine, and Catherine’s somewhat thick brother, Ellard, and also — in his own peculiar and entirely original way — to thwart the evil schemes swirling around him.
I was afraid that the Georgia folks would be stereotypically portrayed as thick-tongued hicks — and in a way, they are. Remember Boss Hogg in The Dukes of Hazzard and the way that actor Sorrell Booke, who played him, could roll a word around in his mouth forever like a sloppy wad of chewing gum? That’s pretty much how everyone speaks. But Shue had a kindly and generous imagination, and there’s more to his play than first meets the eye. The warmth and genuine curiosity of the people at the lodge help draw a prissy, buttoned-down Englishman out of his carapace just as surely as his newly discovered improvisational skills transform and improve their lives. At heart, The Foreigner is about tolerance and the need for people to accept and celebrate their differences. One of the best scenes occurs when Ellard, seen by almost everyone as a dimwit, decides to teach Charlie English over breakfast — “faw-awk” for “fork” — and to interpret the moment when Charlie places his juice glass on his head (I honestly don’t remember why) as a fascinating foreign custom. Laughing with delight at the role of instructor, Ellard begins to come into his own.
But The Foreigner isn’t just a vehicle for a Hallmark-card message. It’s rock-the-house funny, full of clowning, physical and verbal comedy, and moments of blissful insanity. As Charlie, Bernie Cardell seems at times to be channeling the brilliant Rowan Atkinson, creator of Mr. Bean and Blackadder: He’s so fleet of foot, rubber-faced and deft of parley. And when he cuts completely loose — as when Charlie tells the story of Little Red Riding Hood in his vaguely Eastern European-sounding, supposed native language — he has the audience in stitches. Luke Terry and Mari Geasair bring empathy and warmth to the roles of Ellard and Betty, respectively; Leroy Leonard is convincing as violent bigot Owen, and so are Luke Sorge as Reverend David Marshall Lee and Andy Anderson as commonsense Froggy. Despite all the craziness, Adrian Egolf brings some moments of genuine pathos as Catherine.
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There’s something very pleasant about seeing The Foreigner in this homey space in the Colorado Free University building, surrounded by folks in shorts and flip-flops. The program quotes John Hand, who started the university and for whom the theater is named: “Bringing good scripts to vigorous life comes as close to giving birth as is possible outside biology.” Although Hand was murdered over a decade ago, his freewheeling, humanistic spirit animates this production.
The Foreigner, presented by Spotlight Theatre Company through August 1, John Hand Theater, 7653 East First Place, 720-880-8727, thisisspotlight.com.