SAN DIEGO — Being a stranger in a strange land can have its advantages--if you do it right.
It's hard to do it much better than in Larry Shue's madcap comedy "The Foreigner," playing at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company's Deane Theatre through Aug. 22.
The plot is about a pretense as elaborate and unstable as a house of cards. Like "The Play's the Thing," showing at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre through July 11, the story would topple if the collective brains on stage ever amounted to more than half the normal human's allotment. But under the overall deft direction by Will Simpson, the fine cast plays the story absolutely straight building the farce about as high as you think it can go--and then a little higher.
Charlie Baker thinks of himself as a thoroughly boring young man. So does his unfaithful wife, who is grateful to his friend Froggy for depositing him at a small fishing lodge in the backwoods of Georgia for a few days.
Charlie is so lacking in confidence that he does not want to talk to anybody. Whereupon Froggy comes up with a brilliant idea. Charlie not only won't have to speak with anyone, he will be treated like visiting royalty if only he will pretend he is a foreigner, unable to speak a word of English.
Inevitably, people exchange secrets in front of him or tell him things directly because they don't think he understands.
The guests finds the erstwhile dullard fascinating--and a terrific listener. Soon he, in turn, becomes caught up in their lives, from that of the beautiful ex-debutante affianced to a handsome, mysterious minister; to the deb's slow-witted brother, Ellard, who needs to prove his intelligence to win his inheritance; to the secret Ku Klux Klan member determined to steal the proprietress' lodge away.
It is the beginning of the most exciting three days the boring fellow has ever had. Douglas Roberts is irresistible as the hangdog Charlie who blossoms under his new identity. He's so good with the facial expressions that make up much of his "foreign" vocabulary that it's a wonder why Simpson decided to direct some crucial scenes, such as the one where Ellard is "teaching" Charlie English, with Roberts' back to the audience.
Byron La Due breathes life into what could be the cardboard KKK character, Susan Herder charms as the sexy, acid-tongued ex-deb, and Paul Eggington strikes just the right note as Herder's pleasantly sinister beau.
Robert Harland is effective as the eminently civilized Froggy, though the opening would have been helped immeasurably if his energy was a little higher, and Patti Van Roode is sweet as Betty, the proprietress whose exotic guest makes her feel 20 years younger.
Chance Hunt stands out as Ellard, the enthusiastic quarter-wit among the half-wits, even if he does fail to bring off a marvelous bit in his lesson on how to pronounce "fork" (It's two words in Ellard's Georgia drawl.).
Along with having Roberts' back to the audience, the greatest faults in the production are technical ones. Besides the actors, the most eye-catching things about Robert Earl's pedestrian set are Dianne Holly's costumes.
Not only does the stage seem too large for the action, it fails to highlight any of the commented-on details, such as the bitten and discarded apples, or display any of the visual jokes, such as the one about Betty's spoon collection.
John Hauser's sound does not mine the comic potential of the slapstick fall down the cellar, and a poor choice was made in having Matthew Cubitto break reality by providing surrealistic lighting at moments where the words should have sufficed to make things scary.
But all this is not enough to seriously mar this delightful, charmingly written play that won a standing ovation on opening night.
The playwright, Larry Shue, died in a plane crash in 1985, the same year the off-Broadway production of this show won the Best New American Play award. Now in pre-production by Disney, "The Foreigner" was Shue's first major American success in what seemed likely to be a career of great promise.
Even now, after his death, his play "The Nerd" is playing Broadway after having made it as the all-time top-grossing American play on London's West End.
The shadow of Shue's death is the darkest note in this otherwise bright comedy.
"THE FOREIGNER" By Larry Shue. Director is Will Simpson. Set design by Robert Earl. Lighting by Matthew Cubitto. Sound by John Hauser. Costumes by Dianne Holly. Stage manager is Lisa D. Baker. With Robert Harland, Douglas Roberts, Patti Van Roode, Susan Herder, Chance Hunt, Paul Eggington and Byron La Due. At 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday with Sunday matinees at 2. Closes Aug. 22. At the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company's Deane Theatre, 444 4th Ave., San Diego.