Arts & Entertainment » Theater

Learning to speak Southern


When I taught a hilarious play, The Nerd, in a comedy course, several people told me that Larry Shue, who wrote only a few plays before dying young, wrote an even funnier farce called The Foreigner. Blackfriars Theatre is producing a rollicking version of The Foreigner that proves their point.

            Not as polished and clever as Shue's earlier comedy, The Foreigner doesn't hold up to serious analysis. If taken literally, its satire on rural Southern nincompoops --- including a genuinely retarded young man --- would seem mean-spirited and prejudiced, and its Ku Klux Klan villains are targeted for a very shallow attack. In fact, the hero's relationships with his wife and with an inexplicably friendly old soldier don't bear close scrutiny either. But no matter. As one of my favorite commentators used to say, "The plot doesn't get in the way of the story." These details are all just devices to set up the laughs, and this play has a whole lot of those.

            Fortunately, two very accomplished actors play the tricky roles of the rich former debutante, Catherine, and her fiance, the Rev. David Marshall Lee. Jennifer Kemp's Catherine starts out self-involved and affected enough to be insufferable, and gracefully softens and evolves into a sympathetic heroine, keeping the whole process comic. Michael F. O'Connor manages to justify Catherine's growing suspicions and anxieties about his hypocritical minister. At the same time, he lets us accept him as a villain, remains sexy enough to justify her attraction to him, and is just awkward enough to keep us amused rather than antagonized. I assume that director David Runzo shares credit for O'Connor's neat balancing act.

            But Runzo will also have to share blame for the lead comic actor David Jason Kyle's one-note performance in the first act. Kyle plays Charlie, a nervous type, who is persuaded to pretend to come from a foreign country and speak no English so that he doesn't have to talk to strangers. Dropped off in a fishing lodge in Georgia, Charlie deals with the locals by uttering "foreign language" gibberish and acting like a friendly, inarticulate child. That's the play-title gimmick. But to animate the first section, the actor needs a good deal of inventive vocal shtick and especially funny physical comedy. Kyle uses a single, boyish vocal delivery and merely adopts an idiotic grin to aim at his questioners. Both get wearing.

            Fortunately, Charlie evolves to "learn" English from his Southern friends, who employ at least two syllables for every normal English one. And his later dancing around and physical tricks develop into some triumphantly funny exhibits in the second act. By the end, Kyle looks like a pro at getting y'all to layiff.

            Except for Harriet Stark's sweet old lady bit, which works very well on a quieter plane, the cast plays with engaging high energy. Strong-voiced John Locke is memorable as Sgt. "Froggy" LeSueur, who appears only at beginning and end to set up his friend Charlie as a guest in the lodge. Morey Fazzi makes the nasty Klansman broad enough to be menacing only for a minute and hilarious when he is frightened by the show's completely irresistible climactic sight gag. Adam Petzold is likably amusing even initially as an uncomprehending idiot, and his galumphing, good-natured evolution into Charlie's animated crony is delicious.

            Blackfriars' artistic director, John Haldoupis, designed effective costumes and a knockout, complicated set, beautifully lighted by Jennifer DeHollander. What's not to like?

The Foreigner,by Larry Shue, directed by David Runzo, plays at Blackfriars Theatre, 28 Lawn Street, Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, and Sundays at 3 pm through October 18. Tix: $20-$22. 454-1260, www.blackfriars. org