False identity drives comedy

`The Foreigner' reveals people behind masks


December 07, 2007|By William Hyder | William Hyder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Insecure people can find it a liberating experience to pretend they are someone else. (Actors know this -- it's why some of them became actors in the first place.)

The late playwright Larry Shue used that psychological phenomenon as the basis of his comedy The Foreigner. A lively and entertaining production of the show is running at Howard Community College through Dec. 16.

Charlie Baker is a young Englishman who is so shy he can't talk to people and can't stand people talking to him. We learn that his wife (we never meet her) finds him so boring she's been throwing herself into a series of affairs.

We meet Charlie in an unlikely place: a rundown fishing lodge in Georgia, where he has been taken by his only friend, a British army sergeant called Froggy LeSueur.

Froggy, a demolition expert, has come to the States to train American soldiers. He became friendly with the lodge's owner, Billy-Bob, during a previous tour of duty.

Froggy thinks the lodge would be a good place for Charlie to spend a few quiet days and get away from his troubles. To keep him from being bothered by the local people, he tells Billy-Bob that Charlie is a foreigner who doesn't understand a word of English.

The locals are David, a young preacher; his fiancee, Catherine, an Atlanta debutante of a few seasons back; and Ellie, Catherine's mentally challenged sister who works at the lodge.

And then there is Owen, an arrogant, mean-spirited, bullying country boy. David's close ties to Owen show the audience he is not the man of peace and love he pretends to be. In fact, he's scheming to grab political power with the aid of the Ku Klux Klan.

Froggy goes off to report for duty, and Charlie soon realizes the plan isn't going to work. Far from leaving him alone, the Georgians are fascinated by the stranger in their midst.

Much of the play is devoted to funny scenes showing their interactions with Charlie. Billy-Bob, a homebody who longs to visit faraway places, studies his exotic visitor with delighted interest, confidently misinterpreting his every action.

Catherine, believing Charlie can't understand her, unburdens her soul to him, confessing her love for David and her doubts about their relationship.

Ellie decides to teach Charlie English, pointing out all the objects in the room, pronouncing their names in her rich Southern drawl and giving two syllables to words such as lamp and fork.

Charlie blossoms under all this attention and begins responding to them in a language he invents as he goes along.

Soon they're all great friends.

The exceptions are David, who sees Charlie as a threat, and Owen, who hates foreigners and everybody else except white fundamentalist Christian Americans.

The unpleasantness these two men are stirring up comes to a boil toward the end of the second act, but they are foiled by the newly confident Charlie, and the play ends the way a comedy should, happily and with all loose ends tied up.

Susan G. Kramer's brisk direction favors the show's farcical elements and allows for comic overacting in some of the roles.

Christopher S. Adams is consistently amusing as the high-strung Charlie, and Bill Stanley is hilarious as Billy-Bob.

Melissa Francies Ivester offers an understanding portrait of the confused Catherine. Emma K. McDonnell makes her sister Ellie likeably dotty.

In an impressive performance, Keilyn Durrel Jones brings the vicious Owen frighteningly to life.

Steven Ward attempts a Cockney dialect as the bluff, good- natured Froggy, and the devious David gets a straightforward portrayal by Dustin C. T. Morris.

An astonishingly detailed fishing lodge has been created on stage by Alex Swetnam and Mark Smedley. Candace and Ashanti Cooper provided appropriate costumes.

An original score by Nischom Silverman introduces the play's scenes and provides transitions between them. The music works well enough, but to make certain, the composer takes a full page in the program to explain it.

The Student Arts Collective at Howard Community College presents Larry Shue's "The Foreigner" through Dec. 16 in the Black Box Theater in the Horowitz Center on the campus, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 16. For tickets, call 410-772-4900 or visit www.howardcc.edu/studentarts.

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