A really good production can raise the level of a play, but I hold little hope for “The Foreigner.” Its production at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival – not just really good, but better – underscores my feeling about this comedy that demands hamming and cheats the audience.
I realize that “The Foreigner” is a crowd pleaser hands-down. I’ve just never been part of the crowd. The comedy is unapologetically silly and that’s okay – there’s plenty of inspired silliness around, lots of it on stage. But Larry Shue’s play sets us up with one thing and delivers another without any logic, which even in fluff like “The Foreigner” is necessary.
The show offers us a painfully shy man named Charlie, with a blank personality and a fear of meeting new people – the guy can’t possibly finish a sentence if he’s confronted with any sort of conversation. He even has trouble talking with Froggy, a friend from military days and the man who’s brought him over from England to an outpost about 100 miles from Atlanta for a few days’ rest. The tightly wound, scared-of-life Charlie needs a respite because he’s been looking after his exceedingly ill wife.
But Charlie doesn’t especially want it – he’s scared to utter a sound in front of the folks staying at the fishing lodge where he’ll be holed up. So his friend Froggy concocts a solution and Charlie reluctantly agrees: Froggy will introduce him as a foreigner to everyone present. Charlie won’t be able to speak English. No one will be able to speak with him.
What happens after that is the stuff I can’t buy. Faced with a lodge full of Southern hicks – now there’s a stereotype for you – Charlie becomes a sort of enchantment. Everybody wants to please the guy, who represents unknown parts of the world (even to Charlie). And all of a sudden, well, what do you know, Charlie becomes a classic comic on stage, with every other character playing the straight man.
In Jim Helsinger’s production at the Shakespeare Festival, Charlie can mimic another character at length as though they’re mirror images, Charlie Chaplin style. He can be prolific in a made-up language, no stuttering here. He’s not only Mr. Personality, he’s Everyman – a hero who can save all those around him in a challenging moment, who can walk calmly with a woman who spills out her heart while he pretends to be dumb to English. Who has the ease of an emcee and the social grace of a Washington doyenne.
No one can fault Helsinger for the shtick he provides in his direction of the play, or the actor Jacob Dresch for delivering it with such exuberance and physical agility – it’s just what the play calls for. If you want to stage “The Foreigner,” you may as well do it all the way – the over-the-top goofiness makes you forget you’ve been hoodwinked by the playwright’s shift from his own premise. As an entry at a Shakespeare festival, “The Foreigner” is a particular curiosity given the playwriting competition. Consider here that the same cast of “The Foreigner” is a part of “Henry V,” which the festival is doing in repertory.
They’re all game for this, of course, because they are all excellent performers, beginning with the aforementioned Dresch. Carl N. Wallnau plays Froggy and Jane Ridley is the big-hearted older woman who owns the lodge – a bumpkin, the sort of American who lives in the hollows, never comes out, knows almost nothing about the world and probably doesn’t exist. Zack Robidas is a shady minister and Marnie Schulenburg is his fiancée (in real life, they’re married). Anthony Lawton is the menacing macho-man of the town, and David Button is the slightly addled kid, or maybe we’re supposed to believe he’s just another Southern hayseed.
There are some nice stage effects in Kristian Derek Ball’s sound design and Thom Weaver’s lighting, especially when things become serious for about five minutes in the second half. (But no worries, not seriously serious.) And the woodsy lodge, designed by Bob Phillips, is a perfect setting for a few day’s rest, if you can get it.
“The Foreigner” runs through August 2 at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, on DeSales University Campus, 2755 Station Avenue in Center Valley, a few miles north of Quakertown. The play runs in repertory with “Henry V,” performed with the same cast. 610-282-9455 or pashakespeare.org.