Backstage Review: ‘The Foreigner’ at Reno Little Theater

~By Norm Robins~

~Photos by Dana Nollsch~

If you are looking for theater that grapples with the meaning of life or plumbs the depth of the human soul this isn’t it.  However, if you want good comedy well written, directed, and acted, this production is for you.  This play is fun.  You go into the theater expecting lots of laughs, and you are not disappointed.  Some of the characters may even remind you of people you know.  You leave the theater with a happy heart and a smile on your face.

Our hero Charlie Baker is a British proofreader for a science fiction magazine.  He is depressed.  His wife is dying.  He thinks she finds him boring.  She indeed does because he is.  He is a nebbish, and worse he is a cuckold.  His wife Mary has had a string of love affairs, 23 as best Charlie can tell, without regret or remorse.  She wants him to know about all of them.  She is a hussy with the moral compass of a streptococcus.  He loves her anyhow.  Charlie is a very demanding role.  Scott Hernandez rises to the occasion and plays it magnificently.

Charlie’s friend Froggie Lesueur, played well by Keith Roberts, is a British army explosives expert.  He brings Charlie to a fishing resort in the mountains of Georgia to cheer him up or at least desensitize him.  Depressed Charlie doesn’t want to talk to anybody.  This retreating into the shadows is a problem.  At the lodge Froggie concocts a story that Charlie is a foreigner who speaks no English.  Problem solved. 

The resort is owned and run by Froggie’s friend Betty Meeks, played with verve by Moira Bengochea.  She treats all her guests like a mother hen.  She speaks to Charlie in English even though she knows he doesn’t speak it.  She shouts at him thinking this will overcome the problem.  She bends over backward to make him feel at home with her other guests.

Reverend David Marshall Lee, played villainously well by Bradly Howell, is engaged to be married to Catherine Simms who is pregnant by him.  Anna Pidlypchak plays the role of Catherine with heart.  Played exceptionally well by Patrick McCarty is Catherine’s brother, Ellard, a dimwitted but kind-hearted young man.  Ellard teaches Charlie English with amazingly rapid success, doubly so for a dimwit.  Owen Musser is a racist, xenophobe, and member of the KKK.  He along with David are the villains.  Owen is well played by Bob Gabrielli.

Because Charlie is a foreigner, so to speak, he is treated with deference by everyone but Owen (who cares?).  As the play progresses he has no reason to be meek anymore. 

Playwright Shue knows how to write comedy.  Take the Table Scene for example.  Charlie the foreigner ostensibly doesn’t know American mannerisms.  He sits at a breakfast table with Ellard who eats his breakfast as any normal American would.  Ellard goes through a series of motions, and Charlie immediately mimics them ostensibly trying to look like an American.  It is a hysterical scene.  But it goes deeper.  The table scene pays homage to the 1933 Marx Brothers mirror scene in Duck Soup that portrayed one person aping the action of another.  It is redolent of vaudeville from a bygone day.

Charlie also channels Sid Caesar in “Your Show of Shows” telling a story in his native tongue, one he makes up as the story goes along.  Charlie tells this gibberish story convincingly and with passion.

Because he is a foreigner and doesn’t speak English Charlie hears things he shouldn’t, and the audience hears them, too.  There is skullduggery afoot.  Evil is being planned and later in the play evil is executed.

Catherine, distraught by what she sees going on around her, talks to Charlie with an open heart.  She can bear her soul to him since he will listen sympathetically and not judgmentally.  He can do that because he doesn’t speak English.  Her monologue was played touchingly and tenderly by Anna.

At this point Charlie thinks he is acquiring a personality.  And indeed he is.  He has become important as he has become the center of attention.  The others look to him for answers and they hang on his every word.  He has become a raconteur as well as Catherine’s confessor.  Ellard the dimwit is reading Shakespeare because of him (but only the sonnets).  He has become a new man, complete and alive.  He has regained his manhood.  He has acquired a sense of humor.  Bravo, Charlie, bravo!

And the moral to the story is this:  Sometimes good things happen when you don’t talk, just listen.  That’s not actually true, but it sounds good.

Written by: Larry Shue
Directed by: Rod Hearn

Cast:

Keith Roberts as Froggy Lesueur
Scott Hernandez as Charlie Baker
Moira Bengochea as Betty Meeks
Bradly Howell as Rev. David Marshall Lee
Anna Pidlypchak as Catherine Sims
Bob Gabrielli  as Owen Musser
Patrick McCarty  as Ellard Simms

____________________________________________________________________

On September 26, 1985, the New York Times published this item:

Larry Shue, a playwright and actor, was killed in the crash of a commuter airplane in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park on Monday morning. Mr. Shue was 39 years old and lived in Manhattan….His comedy, ”The Foreigner,” has been running since last November at the Astor Place Theater….
Mr. Shue, who was born in New Orleans, attended the theater arts program at Illinois Wesleyean University, where he graduated in 1968. After serving in the Army, he joined the Harlequin Dinner Theaters of Washington and Atlanta. In 1977 he joined the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, remaining with the company for seven years as an actor and then as resident playwright. The theater produced the world premieres of his plays, ”Grandma Duck Is Dead,” ”Wenceslas Square,” ”The Foreigner” and ”The Nerd,” which recently concluded its engagement at London’s Aldwych Theater.
At the time of his death, Mr. Shue was at work on a screenplay of ”The Foreigner” for Disney Productions, and was also working on a musical.

He lost his life at an age far too tender, and we lost years and years of great playwriting, playwriting that might have been but wasn’t.

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