by Joe Stead (Feb. 2009)
One of the most delightful situation comedies of the 1980's was "The Foreigner," which promised great things to come from its author Larry Shue. Sadly, Shue only completed three full-length plays before his tragic death in an airplane crash. The clever scenario is still rib-ticklingly funny even if the latest production by the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre plays the laughs so broadly they inadvertently loose many. It's the age-old secret of comedy. When you try to be funny you usually aren't. When you play it honestly and sincerely the laughs come naturally.
There's a bit of a subversive undercurrent threaded through Shue's best work. Most of the characters we should ultimately come to care for start off as total losers and the well-respected, suave and successful young man turns out to be one of the biggest creeps of all. The setting is a fishing lodge in rural Georgia where two Brits have arrived for some relief from the hostile elements of a storm. Charlie Baker is a timid little proofreader for a science fiction magazine whose unfaithful wife now lies on her death bed. Charlie is so fearful of conversation that his buddy Froggy concocts a brilliant ruse. He introduces Charlie as a foreigner who doesn't speak a word of English so that his pal can be left alone in peace and quiet.
Simple you ask? Not quite. The colorful "outsider" soon becomes something of a celebrity with the locals, a trusted confessor, friend and eventual hero. Since Charlie supposedly can't understand what the others are saying, they feel completely free to confide in him all of their secret thoughts. Once he's gained the trust and devotion of the lodge proprietor and residents, he unwittingly uncovers and overturns a nefarious plot by the Ku Klux Klan to have the valuable property condemned and re-opened as a prosperous "Christian" hunting club.
The Metropolis production looks splendid. Ian Zywica's handsome lodge setting would be right at home on the stage of any of Chicago's finest regional theatres. The sound design, lighting and costumes are right on target. And a couple of the performers manage to shine, even if Director David Belew cheapens the humorous potential by resorting to obvious stereotypes. Craig Gustafson, who plays Charlie, looks like a living cartoon figure with his droopy appearance and sad eyes. His timing and impromptu storytelling are delightful. Michael B. Woods' bug-eyed redneck Owen Musser must surely be a first cousin to Howard Morris' Ernest T. Bass. The scenes between Charlie and Owen are the most hilarious to watch, over the top though they may be.
Mickey Crocker's Betty Meeks is a real disappointment. She reads far too young for the elderly widow for one thing, and has an annoying habit of shouting and telegraphing every line. Betty should be lovable, but Crocker is shrill and annoying. Jes Bedwinek and Eric Martin are attractive but shallow as the pregnant debutante and her righteous reverend fiancée. Dennis Brown brings a dash of authenticity to British Marine Froggy, although he seems all too happy to rid himself of Charlie, hardly the well-meaning friend and conspirator he should be. Dominic Furry offers plenty of hayseed charm as the gawky, dim-wit Ellard. With lavish production values and genuinely funny, well-written scripts, the Metropolis has the potential of being among the top theatres in the Chicago burbs. A little tighter direction and more restrained performances could definitely get them there.
"The Foreigner" plays through February 21, 2009 at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, 111 West Campbell Street in downtown Arlington Heights. The play runs 2 hours 20 minutes with intermission. Tickets range from $26 to $42 and can be purchased online at www.metropolisarts.com or by calling (847) 577-2121.