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THEATER REVIEW 'THE FOREIGNER' : Mr. Personality : A self-confessed bore emerges a hero through hilarious circumstances in "The Foreigner."

March 12, 1992|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"I've often wondered--how does one acquire personality?" muses Charlie, the meek British introvert, at the outset of "The Foreigner." He has good reason to wonder. A self-confessed bore and cuckold, Charlie has all the charisma of an eggplant. And now he's even begun to doubt his worth as a science fiction proofreader ("Does anyone really care whether there's one K or two in 'Klatu, barada, nikto?' ").

But before the evening is over, Charlie will not only acquire a personality--or, rather, have one created for him--he'll actually emerge a hero through the most improbable circumstances. In an extraordinarily funny and satisfying production from the Santa Barbara City College Theatre Group, Larry Shue's 1985 comedy serves up a nonstop melee of mistaken identity and quirky characters, with some wry truths about human nature along the way.

Having reluctantly accompanied a friend from England to a fishing lodge in the wilds of Georgia for a weekend vacation, Charlie wants only quiet and isolation. So his friend obligingly hits on the idea of passing Charlie off as a foreigner who speaks no English.

Charlie is outraged at the ridiculous ruse, but before he can explain the truth he overhears an embarrassingly personal conversation between a squeaky-clean Southern minister and his all-too-pregnant fiancee. The only way he can save face is to continue the deception.

You'd think the supposed language barrier would bring Charlie the solitude he wants, but instead it piques the curiosity of the assorted Southern eccentrics he meets, and he quickly finds himself the center of attention. As people do in ambiguous circumstances, each projects an identity onto Charlie, and he actually begins to enjoy it as "people hand me my personality piece by piece as they walk into the room."

Charlie becomes a mirror to others as well. Thinking themselves beyond his comprehension, the various characters become unguarded and confessional around him. Free of pretense, their real personalities come to the surface. Sometimes they're charming, but things turn menacing when a pair of nasty Ku Klux Klansmen reveal their plans for seizing control of the lodge and turning it into the national headquarters of their "invisible army." Now it's up to Charlie to find a way to stop them.

Ron Scala proves impressively versatile in the role of Charlie, effecting his transformation in thoroughly believable increments. From initial faltering attempts at communication, he invents a full-blown nonsense language and finally pretends to learn English at a hilariously fast pace.

Scala is buoyed by an accomplished ensemble cast without a single weak link: Rojan Disparte as the dotty lodge proprietress, Colleen Simms as the naive fiancee, Devin Scott as her slow-witted brother, David Clements and Robert Langenbucher as the slimy klansmen and David K. Morris as Charlie's mischievous fellow Brit. Director Pope Freeman has made shrewd choices in both casting and staging here.

But commendable as these performers may be, equal credit is due Larry Shue, the actor-playwright who crafted each role with remarkable sensitivity to the realities of live performance and made each character worthy of our time and interest. We can only reflect sadly on how his writing could have evolved if not for the 1987 plane crash that claimed his life at age 38.

Beneath the countless inventive laughs in "The Foreigner," the play's legacy of human values becomes evident as Charlie's influence distinguishes the good guys from the bad guys. What makes them good isn't their spotless characters--they're sometimes petty, stupid and thoughtless--but the way they react to Charlie with openness and curiosity instead of fear and hatred. Something we might do well to consider as we look around this world full of foreigners.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"The Foreigner" will be performed at the Santa Barbara City College Garvin Theatre through March 21. Tickets are $14 (Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.) and $12 (Thursdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.). For reservations or information call 965-5935.

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