Lost in translation

You might need an interpreter to enjoy The Foreigner.

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click to enlarge SHUE ON THE WRONG FOOT? From left, Elizabeth Dimon, Matt Lunsford and Chris Crawford are a delight to watch even when The Foreigner doesn’t translate. - Roman Black
Roman Black
SHUE ON THE WRONG FOOT? From left, Elizabeth Dimon, Matt Lunsford and Chris Crawford are a delight to watch even when The Foreigner doesn’t translate.

Several years ago, an actor friend told me that he could use a gag no more than three times on stage ­— and then the joke would lose all its power. Larry Shue’s The Foreigner takes the other position — that you can get away with a gag about 285 times with no loss of energy or impact. This theory is wrong, but not entirely. The strange thing about The Foreigner is that, even an hour into the show, there’s still an occasional chuckle to be had from the play’s endlessly repeated joke. That joke goes as follows: There’s a character, Charlie Baker, who’s so shy that he finds it easier to pretend that he doesn’t understand English than to admit to his embarrassment in society. In the presence of such a person, some characters trade shocking confidences fearlessly, while others do their best to teach him a few monosyllabic words. Charlie himself speaks nonsense when required to say something, and occasionally pretends to teach his “language” to interested parties. All right, there’s the gag. Now, how long can you milk it? One hour? Two?

I’d say it works for about 20 minutes; after that, almost everything is one kind of repetition or another. Except the ending — for reasons that escape me, the last minutes of this strange comedy are about the KKK and an attempt to revivify a Klan empire based in little Tilghman, Ga. At least this plotline is new enough to wake us from our induced slumber. But it’s so bizarre, it seems almost to belong to another play. And anyway, when does this all take place? The 1960s? Now? Is the Klan currently trying to rid the South of foreigners like Charlie? I’m as baffled by this plot turn as I was by the laughter some of Charlie’s lines kept provoking in my fellow audience members after the 200th repetition. Is the South so starved for comedy? Is St. Petersburg?

I’ll tell it as I saw it. A British demolition expert, Froggy LeSeuer, has traveled to Georgia to train American soldiers at a nearby base. With him, for some reason, is Charlie, another Englishmen, whose unfaithful wife is back home dying. Froggy and Charlie have come to Betty Meeks’ Fishing Lodge in Tilghman, where Charlie is to stay for three days. But Charlie has this social inhibition — oddly, Froggy didn’t know about it — and so Froggy lets everyone believe that his friend is a foreigner. “Everyone” means amiable Betty Meeks herself, as well as the sinister minister Rev. David Marshall Lee, his pregnant fiancée Catherine Simms, her backward brother Ellard, and Lee’s lowdown redneck sidekick Owen Musser. Persuaded that Charlie can’t understand them, Rev. Lee and villainous Owen plot in front of him to grab the lodge and all Catherine’s money. But they face a lot of good guys: Charlie, Betty, Catherine, and Ellard. Will virtue prevail? Will Charlie, without speaking a recognizable word of English, turn the tables on vicious Lee and Musser?

Chris Crawford plays Charlie, and he’d be fine — innocent and endangered at every moment — if he weren’t required to play that same gag ad nauseam. Matt Lunsford is excellent as army Brit Froggy, wearing a camouflage outfit designed by Trish Kelley, and radiating so much goodwill he could be hired as ambassador. Elizabeth Dimon is sweet as lodge owner Betty, and Gavin Hawk is persuasive as the duplicitous Reverend Lee (it’s delightful to see fresh-faced Hawk play a scoundrel). Natalie Symons, one of the best actresses in the Bay area, makes Catherine a wonderfully complex woman, one who sees in foreign Charlie a possible replacement for lover Lee; and Greyson Lewis plays slow-witted Ellard as if 19 of 20 light bulbs in his brain need immediate replacement. Only Dan Matisa as Owen Musser seems out of tune with the others: he so emphasizes his character’s cartoonish qualities, he comes across as less dimensional than even the simplest of his cohorts. Director Matt Chiorini makes the best of a limited canvas. Tom Hansen’s set, of a handsome lodge lobby, is nicely realistic.

But oh how I wish there were more to The Foreigner! I’d been hearing about the hilarity of this comedy for years before I took my seat, and I confess I expected to have a good time. Instead I was shocked — at the play’s good reputation.

One gag for two hours: Did anyone really think such a gambit could succeed?

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