How innocent we seem to have been three decades ago! By we I mean Southerners, even those in rural Georgia, who respond to the title character of The Foreigner as if he were something between an exotic pet and a cuddly extraterrestrial. (Perhaps playwright Larry Shue was influenced by the film E.T., which had come out the year before.)
In this farcical comedy, which Theatre Charlotte has revived with boisterously broad humor, people can be judged by the way they treat this interloper. The decent ones try to make him one of us, teaching him English and instructing him in our customs. The nasty ones want him expelled, even punished for presuming to come to America. While our current contentious debate about immigration rages, its impossible not to see this as a parable about xenophobia even though Shue, who died in 1985, probably didnt intend it that way.
The Louisiana-born playwright went down in a plane crash after writing two hilarious plays based on solid ideas with one twist apiece: The Nerd, in which a hellish house guest drives his host mad, and this one, about a Britisher who pretends to speak no English during his rest cure in Georgia.
Shue did his homeland no favors in The Foreigner: The five Southern characters are deluded, deceitful, dopey, ditsy and dim. The two smart guys are Froggy (Vito Abate), a British munitions expert on loan to the U.S. Army, and Charlie (Philip Robertson), the friend he yanks away from a philandering wife and presents as a European who neither speaks nor understands English.
Innkeeper Betty (Polly Adkins) mothers Charlie, talking loudly and slowly to help him communicate. Pregnant heiress Catherine (Laura-Nelle Parnell) knows her secrets will be safe with Charlie and shares them blithely. Ellard, her younger brother (Matt Mitchell), is either slow-witted or eccentric (you decide) and tries to teach Charlie a kind of English where fork and lamp have two syllables apiece. So simple are these sweet folks that Charlie arouses no suspicions by reciting Shakespeare the next day.
Only superstitious, sneering Owen (Patrick Smith) and smiling minister David (Lee Thomas), the brawn and brains of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter, find Charlie contemptible. Shue gives away a secret too early: David wants to marry Catherine for her money, so he can buy Bettys inn to build a Klan headquarters.
Director Paige Johnston Thomas realizes Shue isnt subtle. She encourages actors to go large, except for Lee Thomas (whos pretending to be a voice of reason). Robertson takes Charlies private fears or triumphs and his public double-talk to the extremes Shue would have wanted hes funny just by himself, doing an odd dance of exultation and the others add a layer of exaggeration to their characters that the play needs to succeed.
We cant take even the Klansmen seriously: Theyre boobs about as threatening as middle school bullies and as easily confounded. Though Shue wrote the play only two years after Alabama Klansmen lynched a black man, evil and good in The Foreigner have been reduced to untroubling caricatures. We can chuckle at both without a qualm.