'The Foreigner' is a blast of fun

by Teresa Harings | 11/16/98 6:00am

"The Foreigner" lives up to its promise on the playbill of "one comic surprise after another," despite the fact that it relies on variations of the same joke throughout. Written by Larry Shue, it is a lighthearted comedy that uses dramatic irony to reveal a situation that is as unlikely as it is hilarious.

The play is directed by Mara Sabinson and is well produced and acted, with impressive special effects such as very realistic rain and thunder. All efforts combined manage to pull off a story that could loosely be described as "The Beverly Hillbillies" meet "Mr. Bean."

Charlie, played by Jeffrey Withers '02, is the exceedingly shy friend of "Froggy" LeSueur (Kinohi S. S. Nishikawa '01), a British demolition expert who is visiting an army base in central Georgia to run training sessions. Charlie is in need of a vacation from his sick wife, so Froggy sets him up to stay with some friends of his in a fishing lodge.

The problem: Charlie is so shy that he is overcome with fear at the thought of talking with strangers. The solution: Froggy decides that Charlie should pretend to be a "foreigner," unable to speak or understand a word of English.

The plot seems fairly straightforward: Charlie plays dumb and overhears the thoughts and secrets of the other characters staying with him in the lodge, things he normally wouldn't be allowed to hear. There is mischief afoot, and Charlie is the only one aware of the full situation.

Charlie's antics keep the plot going. Rather than inventing a country and a nationality, Charlie gets creative and invents his own language: A clever jumble of Spanish, French and Russian sounding words. Combined with his British accent, these words succeed in sounding like any foreign language the first time they are heard: gibberish. Charlie's "first" words, "thank you," are then used in every situation, appropriate or not.

Another comical aspect of the play is the way Charlie is treated by the other vacationers at the lodge. None of them have ever seen a foreigner before, and instead of being ignored, Charlie becomes the center of attention. However, he inspires very different reactions in each of the other eclectic characters.

Betty, played by Allison Fisch '99, is the elderly owner of the lodge who adores Charlie because he represents a world outside Georgia that she has never known. She gives Charlie the royal treatment and is particularly amusing because she believes Charlie can understand her better if she shouts at him.

Charlie becomes the unwitting confidant of another vacationer, Catherine, played by Nell Shanahan '99, who struggles with an unexpected pregnancy and unfulfilled dreams. Her brother Ellard (Kristjan T. Thorgeirsson '02) is considered the family "idiot" although he has his own brand of wisdom to offer. "That's a fork," he says in his thick Southern drawl, excited to teach Charlie a new English word. "There's two parts: Fa-work."

Everyone does not like Charlie. The Reverend David Lee (Brett Kiefer '99) largely ignores him while his redneck friend Owen (Andy Hoey '01) exhibits extreme xenophobia: He threatens Charlie more than once with a knife and enjoys making fun of him "without him knowing."

Perhaps the strongest performances come from Fisch, Thorgeirsson and Withers, who bring a comic zest to their roles while performing in a variety of accents. Still, while their portrayals are exceptionally strong, the cast as a whole displays amazing talent and keen comic timing, and Shanahan and Nishikawa do well with the play's straighter roles.

Of course, this is all helped by Shue's clever writing. His dialogue is fresh with a enough witticisms and slapstick to keep the action going, though the plot's resolution is a bit too easy.

What is most surprising is that the underlying concept of the play is not Charlie's deception; rather, it is how Charlie finds he needs the other characters in the play as much as they need him. Charlie is a shy man who lacks the self-confidence to speak up, but he finds acceptance, respect and even admiration in a house of strangers.