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THEATER REVIEW : 'The Foreigner' Offers Evening of Light Laughs : A first-rate cast adds good-natured humor to a play about a shy Englishman who is vacationing under false impressions.

December 02, 1993|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One reason Larry Shue's "The Foreigner" is so frequently performed is because it's one of the few modern comedies that remains true to human nature despite its absurd excesses.

Another reason is that it's outrageously funny.

If those aren't grounds enough to enjoy an evening at the theater, toss in the incentive of Tom Alderman's handsomely staged Pasadena Playhouse production at the Lobero Theatre as a first-rate cast guides us sure-footedly through Shue's exploration of the comic possibilities suggested by an initial false impression.

In the case of Charlie (Steve Vinovich), a shy Englishman on holiday from a bad marriage in a remote Georgia fishing community, that false impression is supplied by his friend and protector, Froggy (Stephen Mendel)--namely, that Charlie is from some obscure country and speaks no English.

For Charlie, the chance to assume a temporary new identity comes at the low point of his self-esteem. He's even begun to question his value as a science-fiction proofreader ("Does anyone really care whether there's one K or two in "Klatu, barada, nikto?" he wonders--as we all have at one time or another).

What Charlie discovers in his pseudo-isolation (where he must pretend not to understand what others say to him) is that people view him as a blank screen onto which they project the person they need him to be.

So for Betty (Julianna McCarthy), the charmingly ditsy widow who owns the fishing lodge and needs someone to take care of, Charlie becomes an innocent. She's convinced that she can communicate with him by shouting and punctuating each word with hysterically exaggerated gestures ("I had me a pet skunk once . . . I could always tell what he was thinking, too").

Ellard (Morgan Rusler), a slow-witted youth whom the others have written off as mentally incompetent, proves everybody wrong when his eccentric tutoring methods (holding up silverware and drawling "Fah-war-kuh") has Charlie quickly speaking rudimentary English.

And Ellard's pretty but self-centered, debutante sister Catherine (Joanna Daniels) finds in Charlie a much-needed friend she can freely confess to, because "with Ellard or Betty, there's always that slim chance you'd be understood."

None of these characters are particularly likable at first--not even Charlie--but we're won over by their ability to grow beyond their own narrow-minded limitations (unlike the villains of the piece, Scott Jaeck's uncouth bigot and Matt Walker's calculating Reverend).

Our plucky heroes find their newly discovered enlightenment put to a test with chilling overtones in a second-act confrontation with the Ku Klux Klan. Once again, Shue's comic ingenuity saves the day.

It's hard to say how far Shue's genius might have taken him if a 1985 plane crash hadn't cut short his life at age 39. Sadly, we have only innumerable productions of "The Foreigner" to fuel our speculation--but we can at least be grateful for the laughs.

Details

* WHAT: "The Foreigner"

* WHEN: Tonight through Saturday night at 8, Sunday at 2 p.m.

* WHERE: Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St., Santa Barbara

* COST: $28.50

* FYI: For reservations or information, call (800) 883-PLAY

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