Sure, "The Foreigner" is silly. But it's state-of-the-art silly. And this very funny play by Larry Shue gets a very good staging at Laguna Playhouse under the direction of Martha McFarland.
The plot is unarguably lean; it's the telling that makes it rich. An excruciatingly shy Englishman accompanies a chum to a fishing lodge in rural Georgia. In order to avoid having to make idle conversation, the chum tells the gabby proprietress that his friend Charlie is a foreigner who doesn't know a word of English.
But rather than being ignored, Charlie finds himself the uncomfortable center of attention. Predictably, he is soon overhearing things he was never meant to hear. Less predictably, he begins to blossom and discover a personality hiding beneath the milquetoast.
After all, a "foreigner" is an exotic creature to these backwoods types. But Charlie is a bit too exotic for the Ku Klux Klan, which is organizing a local chapter and just itching to make an example out of someone.
Shue has set up some inspired situations, notably Charlie's attempts to "learn" English with a Southern accent and a fairy tale told in a bogus foreign tongue accompanied by frantic pantomime.
Craig Fleming does a nice job of leading this meek man through the transition from wallflower to center stage. The role requires a lot of physical comedy, and Fleming makes the most of it, starting with the awful moment when he is caught unintentionally eavesdropping and tries to slink unnoticed out of the room.
Much of the comedy lies in the interplay between Fleming as Charlie and Ed de Leal as Ellard, a well-meaning simpleton who takes Charlie under his wing. De Leal is all gawky elbows, tapping feet and silly grins, but he manages to make Ellard a sympathetic and even noble character rather than a stereotyped country dimwit.
The plot plunges into unlikely danger, however, when the Ku Klux Klan begins to rear its hooded head. This manipulative twist in the story gains credibility with the appearance of Robert L. Ornellas as the evil Owen Musser. There are still plenty of jokes at the expense of Owen's dubious IQ, but there also is a genuine threat lurking behind his glowering expression.
Effie Baird is the cheery housemother to all this madness as the owner of the lodge, and Baird strikes a happy compromise between irritating busybody and good ol' gal. There is also good support from Cynthia Blaise as the romantic interest, Patrick Massoth as an ambitious young minister, and Michael Bielitz as Charlie's good-natured buddy from Britain.
The set design, by Steven Craig, is unabashedly rustic, dressed with kitschy touches such as a stuffed bobcat staring down from the mantle, a dusty pheasant hanging from the wall and fishing gear stashed in the corners. The lighting design by Steve Shaffer is particularly effective, offering neat transitions between scenes. 'THE FOREIGNER'
A Laguna Playhouse production of the Larry Shue play. Director Martha McFarland. With Michael Bielitz, Craig Fleming, Effie Baird, Patrick Massoth, Cynthia Blaise, Robert L. Ornellas, Ed de Leal. Set design Steven Craig. Lighting design Steve Shaffer. Costume design Neva Kanteman. Plays at 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, with 2:30 p.m. matinees Sunday. Closes Nov. 22. Tickets $11-$13. Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach; (714) 494-0743.