By John Quinn
“The Foreigner” is a mad little comedy from the fertile imagination of Larry Shue, whose all-to-short career was ended by a commuter plane crash. Its 1984 New York debut won two Obie Awards and two Outer Critics Circle Awards, including Best New American Play and Best Off-Broadway Production. Thirty years have not dulled its shine, and its revival by The Snug Theatre in Marine City is a welcome event.
Two Brits, Charlie Baker (Curtis Younce) and his friend, Staff Sergeant Froggy LeSueur (Matt Boucher), are visiting rural Georgia. Froggy makes an annual trip to train U. S. troops in demolition protocols. He drags Charlie away from the bedside of his terminally ill, much beloved and serially adulterous wife. Charlie is painfully shy and is not willing to intermingle with strangers. Froggy’s out-of-the-hat solution is to pass his friend off as a foreigner who speaks no English – because since the British speak English, they’re not really foreign, are they?
Betty Meeks (Colleen Wood Ellery), owner of the fishing lodge where Charlie will stay, is immediately won over. She firmly believes she can get through to anyone as long as she speaks loudly and slowly. Her enthusiasm spreads to the lodgers, Catherine Simms (Krista Haney) and her simple-minded younger brother, Ellard (Aaron Buckley). Not so enthused are the Reverend David Marshall Lee (Steve Simmons), Catherine’s fiance, and the brutish Owen Musser (David Janush). Musser is about to use his new powers as a building inspector to condemn the dilapidated lodge.
Charlie’s deception takes an unexpected turn: He’s privy to information exposed by conversations held in his presence because it’s assumed he can’t understand them. He gets an earful of hidden emotions and nefarious plots. Drawn into action, Charlie comes out of his shell.
Although very long for a farce, “The Foreigner” is blessed with an endearing script and winning characters. Nancy Arnfield, the director, and her cast do justice in both aspects. It is of particular note how Younce’s Charlie plays off Ellery’s Betty. The running gag in the show is Betty shouting at top volume in Charlie’s startled face. True, Betty has some of the funniest lines, but the bit doesn’t get stale.
Where “The Foreigner” turns from simple comedy to something deeper is in the relationship between Charlie and Ellerd. While the “smart people” dismiss Charlie’s “affliction,” the less gifted Ellerd begins giving him English lessons. It turns out that the boy isn’t so dumb after all. Again, the interplay between Younce and Aaron Buckley is spot on.
There are some performance notes that bear observation. Stage dialogue snaps along at a much more rapid pace than conversation, especially in comedy. Here the drag is not between the lines; because, in theater jargon, the cast members are “picking up their cues.” It’s the long pauses between sentences that are adding up and slowing the delivery.
There are challenges to convincingly act out a role, some due to the structure of a theater. The light is hitting the stage at a high angle. At The Snug and other theaters, the audience looks down on the actors (The Critic looks down on actors in general, but that’s another story). When it comes to expressing emotion, the eyes have it. Bangs render the eyebrows useless for expression and cast shadows on the eyes. Hair framing the face can conceal it even in quarter profile. Losing those tools is a handicap from which few performances can recover.
The weather is improving, but still nippy. “The Foreigner” is a warm, bright show in classic comedy tradition that can take the chill off the chilliest of Michigan night.
The Snug Theatre, 160 S. Water St., Marine City. 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through April 5. 2 hours, 40 minutes. $20. 810-278-1749. http://www.thesnugtheatre.com