Before crossing the bridge to see The Foreigner at Lamb’s Players Theatre in the resort city of Coronado, we passed a large billboard – for Foreigner at Harrah’s Rincon, the Indian-owned casino in rural Valley Center. What a twisted coincidence. A popular comedy and an aging rock band with the same name opened on the same night at opposite ends of the county.
The Foreigner, the comedy by the late Larry Shue, made its debut Off Broadway in 1984, and Lamb’s has revived it countless times. Foreigner, the rock band, had a big hit that year too, and fans still flock to see them play the power ballad “I Want to Know What Love Is” (along with “Feels Like the First Time,” and “Cold as Ice.”)
What if somebody got the two mixed up? Conjure a quivering hand hitting the wrong online ticket button. Wait. A shy tourist lands in the wrong theater, the victim of a hotel concierge’s prank or cab driver’s wrong GPS input. Imagine the mix-up of bumpkins and ballads. Preposterous you say? Well, that’s the whole point.
Drawing on ancient themes about love and deceit, good and evil, The Foreigner is a gut-busting farce about an outsider plopped in a strange place, full of jokes that could make your dour Aunt Lil guffaw. But it has darkened over the years. Society is more sensitive now. One can’t ignore the stereotypes, cruelty, and violence. Did I mention the Klu Klux Klan?
Director Kerry Meads’ handsome production includes a first rate cast, chiefly Geno Carr who portrays the title character Charlie Baker, a stuttering British weakling who transforms from a zero to impossible hero in the end (a role that has been played by Matthew Broderick).
Charlie, a neurotic proofreader of Science Fiction, leaves his dying but wildly adulterous wife and follows his dashing soldier friend “Froggy” LeSueur to rural Georgia. Froggy teaches the art of detonating explosives at an army base and dumps his shy friend at a rundown lodge.
Carr as Charlie has our sympathy with the first line about his wife. “Mary finds me profoundly boring,” he sighs with a soft English lilt. He channels Charlie Chaplin’s charm when he turns his balding head and stares out into the crowd. His beady eyes appear too close together under big glasses.
Cris O’Bryon plays Sgt. Froggy the sturdy fearless soldier and gives a mostly British delivery. He convinces Charlie that he can avoid interacting with other guests by staying mute. He concocts a ruse that Charlie is a foreigner who doesn’t understand English, and it takes an eternity before anyone asks what language he does speak.
Myra McWethy steals the show as Betty Meeks the loopy and loveable lodge owner. She’s fascinated by her exotic foreign guest and can’t stop serving him tea and waving her happy arms. Her wiggly body moves like the chubby robot on the old TV show “Lost in Space.” Though her Southern drawl ain’t perfect, her comic timing is spot on. In an effort to be understood, she yells at poor Charlie as if he was deaf and is convinced she can decipher his cryptic messages.
By staying mute and pretending not to understand, Charlie disables everyone’s inhibitions, which reminds us of Sasha Baron Cohen’s foolery in “Borat.” He overhears juicy personal and criminal information and listens attentively like the family dog.
Some of the funniest (and overly long) scenes involve Charlie babbling in a made up language, Slavic that slips into Swedish. A reward of the play is watching Carr find his backbone. He takes the role from slinking in a chair to cutting loose atop a table as if possessed.
The fishing lodge designed by Mike Buckley was deemed “a monument to middle-class bad taste” back in 1988 and hasn’t changed a bit. It sucks you into a time warp. Ugly chatskis and the crocheted afghan in neon green, lavender, and orange, are to die for.
The most touching moments involve Charlie’s developing relationships with Catherine, an unstable ex-debutante (and wife in real life), and Ellard, her mentally challenged brother.
As Catherine, Nancy Snow Carr models the best and worst styles from the 80s (gleaned by costume designers Jemima Dutra & Juliet Czoka). She yells at her innocent brother, but doesn’t realize that the father of her unborn child is an evil schemer. As Ellard, Kevin Hafso-Koppman creates a tender mentally challenged character and responds to verbal abuse with believable fear and pained expressions.
A most memorable sequence has Ellard and Charlie raise forks and balance cups on their heads in unison. It’s the start of a heartfelt alliance to rise up against the two snakes in the lodge, Catherine’s minister husband to be and a violent county inspector.
The Rev. David Marshall Lee, played by Brent Schindele, is a conniving abuser dressed for a golf game and intimidation. When he takes a bite out of an apple and sets up Ellard to take the blame, you’ll want to punch him out.
His evil partner Owen Musser, played by Stacy Allen, is the other jerk you love to hate. The script makes him a Southern redneck, but we know they can live anywhere. Allen is no stranger to the gravel-voiced role. He’s played the knife-wielding Owen twice before. While we laugh at his bigoted responses, there is an unsettling understory.
It feels terribly wrong to laugh when armed KKK attackers appear in the last scene, even though they are “sheet heads.” The abuse aimed at a mentally challenged man is chilling too; no matter how you spin ’em, those scenes feel insensitive.
Still, there is a bounty of talent and funny, rapid-fire dialogue in The Foreigner. If you go, listen for Charlie blurting out “Gort,” the robot in the film “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” The play delivers an obvious lesson about tolerance and the power of love. In the end, outrageous humor exposes the absurdity of prejudice, and that feels great.