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THEATER | Stage Review

'Foreigner' Exchange

Long Beach Playhouse makes a bad trade to get laughs in Larry Shue's comedy.

May 27, 1999|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's a shame actor-turned-playwright Larry Shue lost his life in a plane crash so early. He wrote only three plays before his death in 1985 at age 39, but the best of those, "The Foreigner," shows his potential. It's thin and doesn't have many surprises, but it has a strong hint of antic comic invention, and it's an audience-pleaser.

"The Foreigner" is based on the slight premise that Englishman Charlie, visiting his pal, Froggy, near a military base in Georgia, is billeted at a fading country inn. Charlie is painfully shy and terrified of meeting people and making conversation. Froggy invents a story to solve the problem: Charlie is from an unnamed foreign country and can't speak English, thereby averting any chance of social intercourse. Of course, thinking Charlie can't understand them, the locals tell all, allowing Charlie, in the end, to pull everything together.

The current staging on the Long Beach Playhouse's Mainstage, under Marla Gam-Hudson's fast-paced and bubbling direction, gives the play a good showing, with one major exception. To reiterate an old complaint, comedy is most effective when played absolutely straight. Gam-Hudson's misstep is allowing some of her actors to grossly overplay with mugging, outlandish clowning and supposedly funny movement. Her staging gets most of the play's big laughs but misses many others through this distractingly out-sized style.

The worst offender is Bill Peters as Charlie. He makes faces, does double-takes that would make a silent-movie comic cringe and adopts movements that are spastic and distorted. He makes Charlie pretty unappealing, giving valid reason for his hospitalized British wife to have had 23 affairs, and making Catherine's second-act attraction to him improbable and silly.

The other great offender is Jacob Robertson as Ellard, the slow-witted young man is really brighter than he knows. Robertson is usually bent over, indicating a serious back problem, his hands twisted behind his waist as though in pain, and his accent more from the Jed Clampett mansion than realistically from the American South.

Accents in general are not too accurate here, from Ellard's squawk to proprietor Betty's slippery dialect, sometimes refined and plantation-oriented, at other times rather British, or nonexistent. As Betty, Marie Benoit otherwise turns in a valid, honest comic performance.

As Ellard's sexy sister Catherine, engaged to the local preacher, Patricia J. Francisco is notable for her restraint, her crisp comic timing and the believability of her attraction to the foreigner. Dan Cole is also very good in the unrewarding role of Froggy.

The most solid performances are those of Alan Uphold as the preacher, who is secretly plotting with the Ku Klux Klan to take over the inn as their headquarters, and thereafter take over the country, ridding it of Jews, blacks and, of course, foreigners, and Ryan C. Benson as the local Klan leader, Owen. Both are solid, know the accents and authentic details of their types and bring Shue's dialogue to life. Uphold's complete charm doesn't mask the evil surging beneath the surface, and Benson's good ol' boy braggadocio is as impotent in its noise as the real thing.

BE THERE

* "The Foreigner," Long Beach Playhouse Mainstage, 5021 E. Anaheim St. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Also June 6, 13 and 20. $12-$15. Ends June 26. (562) 494-1616. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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