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The Foreigner 

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THE FOREIGNER

Blind Fate Productions

at the Synergy Center

An innocent man is inadvertently taken to be someone he is not and suddenly finds himself embroiled in a tangle of intrigue. By the end of the story he has resolved the problems, defeated the villains, won the girl, and discovered his own untapped heroism. This is the premise for Gogol's The Inspector-General, Jerzy Kosinski's Being There, and virtually every movie featuring Danny Kaye--I suspect it may go back to Plautus, if not farther. Larry Shue's The Foreigner serves to demonstrate that the formula still works, and very well too.

In this version the hapless sad sack is Charlie Baker, who has been brought to a resort in Tilghman County, Georgia, by his RAF buddy "Froggy" LeSueur, who's there on a three-day training assignment at the nearby military installation. Charlie Baker is painfully shy, paralytically inarticulate, and as devoid of personality as a golf ball. The thought of having to interact socially with the resort's other guests so terrifies him that Froggy attempts to relieve him of his conversational duties by introducing him to the proprietress, Betty Meeks, as a foreigner who speaks no English. As it turns out, this ruse makes Charlie a witness to a plot, masterminded by the Reverend David Lee and county inspector Owen Musser, to seize the widow Meeks's property and turn it into a headquarters for the Ku Klux Klan. Furthermore, the Reverend Lee intends to acquire the funds to finance this project by marrying an heiress, Catherine Simms, and having her mildly retarded brother, Ellard, declared unfit to manage his part of the inheritance.

The question in this kind of live-action cartoon is not what will happen. Tilghman County is presented as a pocket of provincialism only slightly more remote than a cave in the Appalachians, characters grow conveniently deaf the minute they depart the room, and there are the two all-purpose, xenophobic slimeballs. The fun in this play comes from the mechanics--the surprise when details we have forgotten are suddenly reintroduced just when they are most needed, and the delight of seeing the underdogs trounce the bullies. This is the first of Larry Shue's plays that I have seen, and it is everything that his celebrators claim. Not only is his plot as tightly and logically constructed as a Rube Goldberg invention, but The Foreigner is linguistically brilliant.

As anyone can attest who has ever spent an extended length of time in another culture, nothing makes one think harder and faster about one's own language than being suddenly stripped down to a minimal working vocabulary. In the center of all these characters who talk either very fast, very loud, or very long, we have Charlie, who has only the few words "taught" to him by the equally limited Ellard. The scene in which these two establish rapport through an exercise reminiscent of the old Marx Brothers' mirror trick and the first "language lesson" in which Charlie imitates Ellard's pronunciation exactly (so that "fork" emerges as "foe-werk") are charming because we are seeing a verbal equivalent to the invention of the wheel. Also ingenious is the scene where Charlie threatens Owen with the cryptic pronouncement, "I see through your bones . . . when the bees come down." When the cowardly Owen calls for help, Charlie changes the last words to "please calm down." The Foreigner is filled with puns, double-talk, and manipulations of language that are as intellectually dazzling as the humor is emotionally satisfying.

Blind Fate's production is as close to flawless as any I've seen this year. John Creighton, as Charlie, has the rubbery face and protean body of a trained mime. As Froggy, Mik Scriba projects a hearty gravity that contrasts nicely with the mercurial Charlie and the slow-witted but good-hearted Ellard, played with just the right amount of cutesiness by Alan Ball. Maureen Ann Gallagher, as Catherine Simms, manages to be ingenuous without becoming infantile, while Janet Brooks is so convincing as the feisty Ms. Meeks that it was astounding to discover how young she really is. Peter Zahradnick's spineless Reverend Lee and Craig S. Martin's menacing Owen are as hateful as one could want. Indeed, the audience shouted and cheered like children at a Saturday movie matinee when these baddies finally got what was coming to them. Credit for this enthusiasm goes to Michael Friedman, whose direction keeps the pace galloping and the suspense bowstring tight.

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