The Foreigner | 11.28-12.23.12

foreigner 200As I left the theater, I was thinking this is the highest lowbrow humor I have seen in quite some time.

foreignner 500 

Featuring (L to R): Jay Smith as Owen Musser and John Scherer as Charlie Baker. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

One of my favorite holidays is Halloween. Halloween, for the most part, is being something that you are not. You can be anyone and assume that role for the evening. I was once musician Robert Palmer for a night, wearing a rakishly tilted halo on my head. The effect often is that we can say and do things we would never do in our daily lives. And the costume has some exotic allure which makes us more attractive, more worthy of attention, perhaps even more desirable.

Larry Shue’s The Foreigner brings this effect to life and the Repertory Theatre offers a fine production of the classic play. Charlie Baker (John Scherer), a meek British proofreader who works at a science fiction magazine, has an adulterous wife whom he loves. He is sure that she strays because he is, as he describes himself, terminally boring. So boring, in fact, that even though she is in the hospital, supposedly dying, she sends him off to Georgia for three days with his friend, Froggy (Brent Langdon), a military bomb expert who is giving a lecture at a rural base. Despite the fact that Charlie is nearly paralyzed in public and dreads even the idea of coming in contact with new people, Froggy has arranged for him to stay at a nearby lodge that has certainly seen better days. To spare Charlie the interaction, Froggy tells the lodge’s owner, Betty Meeks (Carol Schultz), that Charlie is a foreigner who speaks no English. The allure of a foreigner is catnip to these rural Georgians who have apparently spent little time outside of their small town, much less out of the country. Charlie takes on the air of a PT Barnum oddity and when he says “thank you,” sounding like a Scandinavian Monty Python character. Rapture ensues with the other members of the lodge, including Catherine Simms (Winslow Corbett), an heiress to a small family fortune; Ellard (Casey Predovic), her dim-witted, though underestimated brother; the Rev. David Marshall Lee (Matthew Carlson), who is engaged to Catherine; and the creepy Owen Musser ((Jay Smith), whose intollerance proceeds him.

The play, which ran for several years in New York, relies on broadly sketched characters who play into some heavy stereotypes. Owen, of course, is in the KKK, David is not as Godly as he may seem, and Ellard proves to hold the key. The characters who surround Charlie are almost all cardboard cutouts of their particular stereotype. If the play were made up of only these people, I would have walked out with a few good laughs from a solid cast and excellent direction by Edward Stern. Scherer’s Charlie makes all the difference, performing a powerful alchemy on the stage that is very entertaining to watch. He becomes that other person, a raconteur, as he describes himself to Froggy late in the play, simply by playing the part of the exotic and distant man of mystery. It is as if he is a tightly wound flower that blooms as the show progresses. Not only do we see the other characters react to his slow emergence (as Ellard “teaches” him English), but also his sheer joy at realizing he can interact with people, attract the pretty girl, be a leader, and hold a room full of people (including several fully robed Klansmen) in his sway.

As I left the theater, I was thinking this is the highest lowbrow humor I have seen in quite some time. The muse for this was in the play as Charlie, allowing himself to be taught by Ellard, introduces the boy to Shakespeare—Shakespeare, whose plays and plot lines have been the literary gift that keeps on giving to thousands of sitcoms, plays, and movies starring the flavor-of-the-day actors is key to this play. Like many of the Bard’s plays, The Foreigner’s core message is one that is wrapped up in a fine farce. It is one of reinvention, even if you have to step outside your comfort zone for a bit. And there is also an element of acceptance—finding your true sel—which ultimately frees or banishes the characters. While it is a show that has a very dark element in Owen and David’s plan for a white master race with no place for foreigners (talk about lack of acceptance), there is a sitcom feel to the whole play. Nobody really gets hurt, and in the end, devious plans are destroyed in quite hilarious ways.  

While I laughed out loud, often it was also just a bit off-putting to hear an audience start to cheer the white-hooded Klansmen as they came out for a curtain call, catch themselves, and start to boo. Perhaps somewhere, Larry Shue is smiling. | Jim Dunn

The Foreigner plays on the Rep’s Mainstage through December 23, 2012. For further information, visit www.repstl.org.

About Jim Dunn 126 Articles
Jim Dunn grew up in NY in the 70s and 80s. Even though that time in music really shapes his appreciation it does not define it. Music, like his beloved history is a long intermingled path that grows, builds and steals from its past. He lives in Colorado with his lovely wife and a wild bunch of animals.

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