"The Foreigner," at BYU
by Eric D. Snider
Published on May 31, 1998
Larry Shue's "The Foreigner," being staged at BYU's Pardoe Theatre through June 13, is the last show of the season for BYU.
Fittingly, it's also one of the best.
Set in a fishing lodge in Georgia over the course of three days, "The Foreigner" is a hysterical farce of grand proportions based on one simple premise: Charlie Baker (Marc E. Shaw) is shy. In his own words, he is "shatteringly, profoundly boring," and his wife back home lets him know this by sleeping around. So when he has to stay at this lodge (with gorgeous set design by Karl T. Pope, by the way) while his buddy goes out on Army maneuvers, he is mortified at the prospect of dealing with the strangers who live there. As a solution, his buddy (Roger Nelson) tells everyone Charlie is a foreigner and doesn't speak or understand English.
There aren't too many foreigners in Tilghman County, Georgia, much to the delight of the simple and sweet Betty Meeks (Martha Henstrom), who owns the lodge -- and much to the chagrin of the local bad guys, David Lee (Brad Montgomery) and Owen Musser (Cameron Deaver), who are involved in some very sinister activities.
And so once the stage is set -- be patient for the first 15 minutes or so, as things get established -- one hilarious situation after another ensues. First it's the basic idea of people speaking freely about their secrets in front of Charlie, thinking he can't understand them. Then it's the dim-witted Ellard Simms (Aaron Johnston) trying to teach him English. Eventually, it's all the good guys out-witting the bad guys, who really are evil, and perhaps more realistically so than you expect in a light-hearted farce.
In fact, this farce actually has a bit more to it than is typical for its genre. Charlie brightens the life of everyone he deals with. He lets dear old Mrs. Meeks think she understands his fake quasi-European foreign-babble, simply because it makes her feel better. He lets Catherine (Katie Foster), David's fiancee, pour her heart out to him, even though he "doesn't understand," because she has no one else to talk to. And he lets Ellard think he's succeeding at teaching him English because it makes Ellard feel smart.
Though he's deceiving everyone, Charlie is not deceptive or malicious. It is only out of his pity for Mrs. Meeks, in fact, that he allows the charade to advance, not wanting her to feel dumb at having been tricked by his friend. And as things go on, he becomes more than just "the foreigner" -- he becomes a real person to everyone, and also to himself. He slowly develops a personality -- something, he says, he never had before. This is a farce with heart, believe it or not.
Which does not prevent it from being paralyzingly, achingly, devastatingly funny. This is a show that makes you LAUGH, loud and long and from the diaphragm.
Shaw, as Charlie, is one of the original members of the Garrens Comedy Troupe, a local sketch-and-improv group whose weekly shows are perfect training ground for this kind of silliness. Shaw has never carried a show before, and indeed his small frame and high-tenor voice might leave him destined only for supporting roles. But in "The Foreigner," he proves his worth as a comedic actor, giving Charlie realism, depth and, most of all, humor. His monologue in which he tells a story in his "native language" (a weird hybrid of English and Russian, it sounds like) is a tour de force of comedy. Shaw can play the lead in any show he wants to; "The Foreigner" proves it.
Johnston, as the simple-minded Ellard, is also a member of the Garrens Comedy Troupe, and in fact for the last year or so has been the major reason to go see a Garrens show. With the Garrens, Johnston makes everything physical, throwing himself (often literally) into his roles with funny faces, pratfalls, accents and an insane amount of energy. Garrens devotees laugh as soon as he walks onstage -- except that he rarely walks; he usually bursts. I swear, the man must have no skeletal system, the way he flings himself around.
That same energy carries over into "The Foreigner," but with refinement, thanks to some careful directing from Charles Metten. Johnston plays Ellard dumb, but fast. He thinks quickly; he just comes up with the wrong answers. Here Johnston, like Shaw, shows his worth as an actor, and not just as a comedy troupe member. He demonstrates his ability to rein in his usually unbridled wackiness, and instead of bouncing off every wall in the room, he only bounces off the walls that need bouncing. No mindless Jim Carrey-style goofiness here. Goofiness, yes, but goofiness that's perfectly suited to the style of the play.
Shaw and Johnston, friends in real life, have a natural chemistry and make a great comedy team. Their scenes together are sheer brilliant comedy.
Katie Foster, a BYU Theatre mainstay, is excellent as always in her portrayal of Catherine, a gal with a lot of problems. Foster plays her sympathetic and nice, and Catherine's relationship with Charlie is both sweet and funny.
Ultimately, "The Foreigner" succeeds because it accomplishes its major goal: to make the audience laugh. It's as simple as that. Look at the subtext if you want, examine the social commentary if you must, but do it after the show is over. While it's going on, you'll be too busy laughing.
Copyright © Eric D. Snider.
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