Terrific deception 

Translating the language of comedy

Although Larry Shue’s The Foreigner premiered in 1983 and casts the Ku Klux Klan as villain, it could easily utilize the backdrop of 1920s Sacco and Vanzetti hysteria, the Red Scare of the 1940s, civil rights clashings of the 1960s or, in our current state of affairs, the fear surrounding Iraq and immigration policy. The conceit of the play is simple: While the foreigner is seen as the subject of questioning, it’s really we, the questioners, who are shown for who we really are. Given the right circumstances, this situation can be illuminating and poignant, and, as in The Foreigner, even downright hilarious.

The success of this University of Montana Drama/Dance production is due in part to such a well-crafted, comically steeped script. But comedy, as we know, requires adept timing, and under Chris Evans’ direction and filled out by a feisty seven-person cast, this particular rendition takes the extra strides needed to make solid writing come engagingly alive.

At the beginning we see cultured Brit Charlie Baker (Adam Elliot) accompany his friend, Staff Sergeant “Froggy” LeSueur (Eric Holman-Opper), to  a Georgia hunting lodge. Froggy, a Cockney Brit, is a frequent and well-liked guest at the lodge, but Charlie is new, and he’s only there to seek respite from his failing marriage (his wife has had a series of indiscretions) and to keep from drowning in low self-esteem. He is, Charlie quotes his own wife as saying, “shatteringly, profoundly boring.”

Charlie’s anxiety and shyness provoke Froggy to come up with a seemingly innocuous plan for his friend: pretend Charlie is a foreigner who can’t speak English, and who “must never be spoken to.” This way he won’t have to socialize with other hunting lodge guests. But for the other characters, beginning with lodge owner Betty Meeks (UM drama professor Ann C. Wright), the prospect of a visiting foreigner only stirs up curiosity. Betty has never traveled, so Charlie becomes an exotic portal for how she imagines the world, and he seems to cast a positive light for her in contrast to the fact, we soon learn, that she’s struggling to keep her hunting lodge afloat. Eventually, Charlie becomes the dramatic centerpiece for the entire lodge—a confidant, a willing student and a target of ire from a conniving preacher and the KKK.

It’s hard not to be impressed with the actors’ accents in this play. While I’m no expert in detecting the subtleties between a perfectly honed British accent and a mediocre one, Elliot’s stately cadence for Charlie and Holman-Opper’s more playful Cockney are consistently believable. But it’s Elliot’s full range of accents that really speaks to his abilities as an actor. Consider this: Elliot is an American playing a cultured Brit, playing a foreigner with a vaguely Scandinavian or Eastern European accent. He also has his own foreign language. In one scene Charlie is asked to tell a story to the lodge guests, and for a full two minutes, at least, he offers animated gestures and gobbledy-gook words to provide a sort of scary creature story. Sustaining the fake language pageantry isn’t just an illusion by Elliot—he seemingly has to make up words on the spot for each performance, and he does it well.

The production drags a bit at the beginning. We have to hear the background story of why Betty might lose the lodge in one long conversation. The slapstick interactions between Froggy and Charlie in the first several minutes–though funny—seem unnecessary and strange in comparison to Wright’s more divinely nuanced Betty; it’s as if Wright is acting in a completely different play. But not far into the production, lodge guest Catherine Simms (Karie Pietrykowski) enters at the top of the stairs with the smack of a Southern-belle drawl and a healthy combination of dramatic energy and realism. Finally, the play gains momentum, snowballing its way through engaging, spirited hilarity.

We then meet sweet, inept Ellard (Patrick Cook), who learns through Charlie’s ruse that he is smart and heroic in his own way. The thinly veiled ill-will of xenophobic redneck Owen Musser (Tim Larson) and plotting preacher David Marshall Lee (Seth Bowling) also unravels—and the come-uppence is sweeter because their performances are so deliciously, villainously exact.

The real reward of UM’s production is in how it develops over the course of the evening. We get the joke from the beginning: We know that Charlie will become a catalyst for all other characters, that he will reveal the worst and best in everyone by story’s end, that the secrets we know about the bad guys will eventually be exposed, and that Charlie will learn something about what it means to acquire character. But it’s the labor of transformation that makes this play work.

And it’s not all predictable—the final action climax isn’t obvious from the beginning and the results aren’t all cut-and-dried. The Foreigner spurs a series of timeless questions about whom we ally ourselves with and what freedom and deception really mean. Elliot’s Charlie shines in this show as a man once imprisoned by his belief that he had nothing to offer, but who by inventing a mask imagined himself spectacular, and in imagining it, made it so.

The Foreigner continues at UM’s Masquer Theatre Thursday, Oct. 9, through Saturday, Oct. 11, at 7:30 PM. $13.
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