Southern Exposure

Photo: Amy Arbus

For a farce to be effective, it has to caricature some known human foibles. Make fun of unimaginable characters and inconceivable situations, and you will have laughing with you only people who’d believe, as do some characters in Larry Shue’s The Foreigner, at the Roundabout, that Europeans don’t know what to make of a knife and fork. True, even the preposterous can elicit guffaws, but civilized people would rather laugh out of the right side of the mouth.

One might believe the widow Betty Meeks’s running a fishing lodge in Tilghman County, Georgia. But no staff? Antlered rather than finned creatures gracing the walls? No guests except for one engaged couple from Atlanta—and the fellow, the Reverend David Marshall Lee, always off on mysterious missions well outside his parish, while his fiancée, the millionaire ex-deb Catherine Simms, languishes frustrated and fuming? Arriving is the British staff sergeant “Froggy” LeSueur, for some reason a close friend of Betty’s, on an annual three-day visit to teach the use of explosives at a nearby U.S. Army camp. He brings with him his former officer Charlie Baker (“No, it’s not a code,” the chap says. “It’s my name”), who is so mortally timid as to be unable to bear conversation with strangers. Why then did he come along?

On top of that, the minister is ominously involved with a sinister Georgia cracker named Owen Musser, as well as with Catherine’s mentally challenged brother, Ellard, who seems to be Betty’s helper. To spare Charlie any talk for the next three days, Froggy makes him out a non-English-speaking foreigner, which stimulates the homebound Betty’s fascination with the faraway. And although the lodge is dilapidated and condemned, the affianced pair wants to buy it.

If you can buy all that, you can probably accept Matthew Broderick, despite the brittlest of British accents and terminal little-boyishness, as Charlie Baker. Broderick can certainly do befuddlement with the best of them, but might it not be time for him to try a step up? Frances Sternhagen might also attempt sterner stuff than the adorably trusting old lady, although her shtick wears better than most. True versatility comes from Byron Jennings, whose Froggy is believable from perfect lower-class accent to extra-brief military shorts.

Mary Catherine Garrison’s ditzy deb could be a bit more appealing, and Lee Tergesen’s redneck need not have been of quite such impenetrable Georgia speech. But then Scott Schwartz may not be the ideal director for persuasive farce, which needs special modulations, not just unrelenting excess. Kevin Cahoon’s dimwit and Neal Huff’s whited sepulcher of a clergyman, however, are spot-on, as are Pat Collins’s lighting and David Murin’s costumes.

Quite a few people around me found all this funny. I myself thought it dispiriting that the biggest laugh should have come when a tossed teacup Broderick was supposed to catch landed instead in the audience. He and his colleagues rose splendidly to the occasion with deft improvisation, making me wish the cast had improvised the entire play. The only justification for doing The Foreigner is one line of the lingo devised by Charlie and Froggy. It runs “Peem? Bosco-bosco,” which can be taken as a plug for the Roundabout’s infinitely superior revival of Twelve Angry Men, starring Boyd Gaines and Philip Bosco. I can only hope other managements will not feel encouraged by this revival to mount the playwright’s farcical followup, The Nerd, and drop the other Shue.

The late Larry Shue knew the red states much more intimately than his hapless Brit protagonist (currently played by Matthew Broderick). The playwright—born in New Orleans, raised in Kansas and Illinois—was headed to his Virginia home when he died in a commuter-plane crash in 1985. He was on his way artistically, too: Also an actor, he was preparing for his first big Broadway role, in Joseph Papp’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood. At the time, The Foreigner was well into its first Off Broadway run, and Shue’s other significant comedy, The Nerd, had just wrapped in London. Left unfinished: a screenplay of The Foreigner, and his first musical. Fittingly, The Foreigner has become a community-theater staple, produced by nearly every major regional company in the U.S. 

The Foreigner
Directed by Scott Schwartz.
Roundabout Theater Company. At The Laura Pels Theater.

Southern Exposure