“The Foreigner,” being performed at the Hale Centre Theatre in West Valley, successfully mixes elements of farce, pathos and social commentary, causing the audience to laugh hysterically one minute and recoil in horror the next.
We find ourselves at a little bed-and-breakfast in rural Tilghman County, Ga. British (or perhaps Australian) military man Froggy LeSuer (Jim Gastelum) is there to train with the American troops, and he has brought along his shy, dull friend Charlie (Andrew Barrus). Charlie is, by his own admission, “shatteringly, profoundly boring,” and his wife back home thinks so, too: To alleviate her boredom, she’s sleeping around.
Charlie tells Froggy he doesn’t want to talk to anyone while staying at the inn, so Froggy tells the kind-hearted, feisty old hostess, Betty (Annette Wright), that Charlie can’t speak English, and that everyone should therefore avoid speaking to him altogether. Betty agrees to this, tickled to death to have a foreigner in her midst. (By “foreigner,” they must mean “non-English-speaker,” because Froggy is clearly non-American and is not seen as a novelty.)
We then meet the other characters. Catherine Simms (Randi Harrington-Weekes) is a young lady staying at the inn, engaged to the local preacher David Lee (Jack J. Kenison), who turns out to be a snake. He’s interested in seeing the inn condemned so he and his no-good buddy Owen Musser (Ryan Bowen; double-cast with Bryan P. Jacobs) can buy it and do nefarious things with it. To that end, David finds it essential to keep Catherine from doing anything with her sizable inheritance — which means he has to make sure she keeps thinking her dim brother Ellard (Justin Bruse) is even dumber than he is, lest she give some of the money to him.
Since everyone thinks Charlie can’t speak English, no one has any problem discussing their darkest secrets in his presence. Soon he and he alone knows everything that is going on, and he begins to come out of his shell, slowly “learning” English from Ellard and using his wits to humiliate the bad guys. Charlie turns out to be quite clever, and, to his delight, he eventually develops a personality.
Barrus is excellent as Charlie, keeping him toned-down and prim except when outlandishness is called for. Even then, he gets his best laughs with just a slight look here or a gesture there.
At the other end of the subtlety spectrum is Bruse’s Ellard. Watching his joy at being able to “teach” Charlie some English words is a delight, as Bruse goes from being slow-dumb to energetic-dumb. He bounds around the house, pointing to things and shouting their names for Charlie to repeat. Bruse and Barrus make an able comedy duo.
Also worthy of particular mention is Bowen’s seedy Owen Musser. This character is evil in a serious, non-comedic way, and Bowen plays him as creepy, oily, mean and hateable. Bowen, to his advantage, looks the part: lanky, scraggly and ungraceful, and I honestly don’t remember a recent show in which I’ve despised a character so thoroughly.
And that’s where the aforementioned social commentary comes in. Like a farce, everything is wrapped up neatly and carefully, and there’s a ridiculously happy ending. But unlike a farce, Owen and David’s secret dealings turn out to be much darker and nefarious than one normally expects. It’s nothing that will cause nightmares, but it’s definitely a bit jarring as Owen begins to rant angrily about his plans. (I won’t spoil it for you.)
This is a funny, satisfying play. Everyone gets exactly what they have coming to them. The bad guys are set up beautifully, and then knocked down expertly with Charlie’s playful cunning. The second act is much funnier than the first, as Charlie’s charade comes into full bloom, but the entire play is full of nice moments.
This was the second time I had seen this show, the first being several months earlier, when BYU did it. The BYU production was somewhat better, due to a couple of far superior performances. But West Valley's version was quite enjoyable as well.
This was my first visit to the brand-new $8 million theater. It's quite a place. It looks like they can do a lot with the stage, including putting some good acting on it.