Taking the farcical road with 'The Foreigner'

Bay Theatre Company revives Larry Shue's '80s comedy

December 16, 2010|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

You know the feeling — well, some of you, at least. You walk into a room full of strangers and can't think of anything remotely interesting to say. You really don't want to try saying anything and would much rather just disappear into the wallpaper.

So it is with Charlie Baker, a far-from-gregarious Brit who faces such an intimidating predicament at the start of Larry Shue's "The Foreigner," a much-performed comedy being given a vibrant production by the Bay Theatre Company, Anne Arundel's only professional troupe.

Poor Charlie tries a novel way to avoid interaction with fellow humans when he finds himself in a fishing lodge deep inside the Georgia countryside. He pretends to be a non-English-speaking visitor from a strange land so that everyone will leave him alone. Or will they?

Shue, a promising playwright killed in an airplane accident at the age of 39 in 1985, knew a thing or two about farce. At its best, "The Foreigner" hits all the expected buttons — absurd situations and off-beat characters, non sequiturs and exaggerations, abrupt entrances and departures.

There's not much point, though, in thinking too hard about the set-up or the various turns in the plot, since the level of implausibility gets dangerously high, even for a farcical outing.

To begin with, you have to swallow the idea that Charlie would a) leave his apparently dying wife behind in England, and b) agree to travel to another country where, despite his debilitating fear of strangers and small talk, he would have to spend several days dealing with strangers and small talk.

Then there's the introduction of such sticky issues — for a farce — as xenophobia and the KKK, not to mention hypocrisy among the clergy and mistreatment of the mentally undeveloped. Shue's treatment of these matters is sometimes awkward or heavy-handed, but in the end, it's better to buy into the whole scenario and just go along for the ride.

That ride proves quite smooth and amusing in this staging, which shows off the nearly decade-old Bay Theatre to good advantage in a super-intimate, 77-seat venue.

The company engaged Vincent Lancisi, founding artistic director of Baltimore's Everyman Theatre, to direct "The Foreigner." His deft touch is very much in evidence as the action unfolds tightly on Ken Sheats' spot-on set.

Bill Largess, who played Charlie in a 1996 Everyman production, returns to the role here. He does an admirable job, whether conveying Charlie's amazement at what he learns when people think he can't understand a word of what they're saying, or his delight in the liberating effect of starting to engage with them.

Britton Herring does colorful work as ''Froggy'' LeSueur, the staff sergeant from the British army who makes trips to the U.S. to train Americans in demolition and talks Charlie into coming along this time for the diversion.

As Betty Meeks, the Georgian who runs the lodge where Froggy deposits Charlie, Rena Cherry Brown is particularly funny trying to communicate with her exotic guest by talking louder, as if Charlie merely had a hearing disability. Brown is just as effective in revealing Betty's inner tenderness when the story takes more serious turns.

Annie Grier captures both the naïve and knowing sides of Catherine Simms, who finds the nearly mute Charlie ideal company, while her fiancé, the shady Rev. David Marshall Lee (Peter Wray in a polished performance), keeps disappearing. As the minister's super-redneck sidekick Owen Musser, Stephen Patrick Martin couldn't be much more realistic.

The trickiest role may be that of Ellard, Catherine's childlike brother, who comes in for cruel treatment from most of the adults but touches the sympathies of Charlie. Sean McComas handles the assignment with considerable skill, making the most of scenes where Ellard thinks he is teaching Charlie table etiquette and English — severe Southern English, that is, where "lamp" is a nearly three-syllable word.

"The Foreigner" is no masterpiece, but, thanks to this production, the play ends up speaking with quite a charming accent.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"The Foreigner" runs through Jan. 8 at Bay Theatre Company, 275 West St., Annapolis. $25 to $30. Call 410-268-1333 or go to baytheatre.org.

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