“How does one acquire a personality?” asks the hopelessly dull Brit Charlie Baker (Devin Asay) at the beginning of the Villa Playhouse’s funny production of “The Foreigner.”
And while no answer is ever really given (unless it’s “lie about who you are until people start liking you”), by play’s end, Charlie has indeed acquired a personality — and the audience has had a grand time watching him and the colorful surrounding characters go through the change together.
Set in a rural Georgia bed-and-breakfast, Charlie is in America for a few days while his Army friend Froggy LeSueur (Dane Allred) runs maneuvers. In order to keep the very shy Charlie from having to converse with anyone while he’s there, Froggy tells the owner, widow Betty Meeks (Midge Johnson), that Charlie doesn’t speak English.
This little lie changes everything. The cutely overwrought Betty is lifted out of her doldrums by interacting with a real-live foreigner. Catherine Simms (Angela Otteson), a former debutante about to enter a depressing marriage with devilish preacher David Lee (Brian McFadyen), can confide all her problems in the silent, supposedly uncomprehending Charlie. Catherine’s dunderheaded brother Ellard (Nate Mathews) starts feeling smart when he’s able to “teach” Charlie some English. And the aforementioned Reverend David, in cahoots with outright low-life Owen Musser (Niels Adair), can feel safe discussing his evil designs in front of the foreigner.
The idea is farcical, but Larry Shue’s script is more sharp-tongued and even a little dark (when we learn what David and Owen are REALLY up to) than your typical door-slamming, men-dressing-as-women farce. Despite the suspenseful finale, however, the play remains guileless and charming throughout, an earnest comedy with actors performing gracefully. Director Kathleen Nutt has guided them away from mugging and more toward honest characterization. (There’s still a little bit of over-goofiness, but not much.)
Catherine, for example, starts out almost too sarcastic and bitter (“You two up for a game of Scrabble later?” she spits at her dim-witted brother and mute Charlie). But once we learn her story, we feel much more sympathetically toward her — a tribute to Nutt’s directing and Otteson’s acting.
Asay is great as Charlie, slowly coming out of his shell as he pretends to learn English and win the hearts of those around him. The rest of the cast balances out, too, from the flustered antics of old-lady Betty Meeks to the raging idiocy of Owen Musser.
Kudos also to those responsible for the fantastic set (Bill Brown, Victor Karcich, Kathy Tramundanas, Andy Snyder and Kathleen Nutt), which looks every bit like a rural fishing lodge (by way of Deseret Industries) and which adds to the overall professionalism of this very funny, entertaining show.
Though I had seen this play three times before this production, I was still amused by it. Well, sort of. Actually, it was more that I could see how I would be amused by it, if I had never seen it before. It wasn't the Villa's fault that I'd already seen it a few times.