The main theme of Larry Shue's 1983 play The Foreigner, can be summed up in the main character's question: "I; sometimes wonder...how does one obtain a personality?"
An even more vexing (if less philosophical) enigma for playwrites is: "How; does one obtain a hit comedy?" Somehow, Larry Shue figured this out, as The Foreigner went from its modest debut at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater to run for more than 700 performances off-Broadway.
Twenty-one years since its premiere, The Foreigner has become a staple of regional playhouses--and two new revivals beg the question: Has The Foreigner obtained the status of an American classic?"
By all standard dramatic criteria, The Foreigner is a mess. The plot is heavily contrived, the two-and-a-half hour running time is too long to sustain the simple comic premise, and most of all, some of it just doesn't make much sense. But despite these flaws, the play works--primarily because it continues to make audiences laugh. And laugh alot and laugh loudly.
That's certainly the case with the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival currently running Off-Broadway. Matthew Broderick plays Charlie, the dull, British proofreader who comes to rural Georgia and assumes the role of the exotic foreigner.
Broderick is an expert clown and is well suited to the part--especially the physical comedy, which he performs with grace and skill. His star persona really makes the production all about Charlie, as the audience finds itself watching Broderick, even when the other characters are talking. But, given the goofy play's set-up, this actually provides for some extra laughs, as Broderick's expressions are funnier then many of the play's lesser punch lines.
But ultimately, this wears thin. Rather than becoming Charlie, Broderick has been directed to simply play Charlie for laughs, which has the overall effect of making the slight play feel even flimsier.
A more thorough interpretation of Charlie--and perhaps a more flattering view of Shue's play--can been seen in Los Angeles, as The Foreigner is being presented here by the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble.
The title character is played here by JD Cullum--and unlike Matthew Broderick, he actually makes Charlie seem like a real person. He not only gives the character a credible English accent; but his floppy bow tie, pinched lips and hunched posture make it clear that Charlie is a true, introverted nebbish (and not just a leading man having fun).
This is vital to giving the play a dramatic arc. When Broderick performs the play's tour-de-force scene--a long anecdote told in complete gibberish--it seems natural: a comedian doing his job. With Cullum, the actor's body language subtly shows the character's development, while his verbal dexterity still delivers the laughs. Here the scene isn't just funny, it also shows a lonely man finally finding a personality.
The supporting players at the Odyssey are not as starry as the Off-Broadway cast; but Alyss Henderson and John Hemphill are both strong as Catherine and Reverend David. Special note must be taken of Dave Florek as Owen. This role is particularly tricky because playing a white supremacist in a screwball comedy is no easy task. This subplot is perhaps the worst aspect of Shue's play, but Florek gives Owen the right balance of menace and foolishness to be almost believable.
Seeing these two productions suggest that even if not a bona fide classic, The Foreigner has earned its place in the American theatrical canon. Shue's play can easily be played as a broad, chaotic sitcom; but like the title character, underneath The Foreigner is a subtle farce about manners, personality and language trying to be heard.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.