Since he wrote it in 1984, Larry Shue’s play “The Foreigner” has been produced and revived by amateurs, students, and professional companies almost continually. It’s a two-act, two-and-a-half-hour absurdist comedy that taxes the abilities of the lead actor, who has to speak in gibberish the entire time. Fortunately, Mike Niedzwiecki is up to the task.
As Charlie Baker, a vacationing Englishman, he is brought to a fishing lodge in rural Georgia by his friend, Staff Sergeant Froggy LeSueur (played with panache by Jon Sperry). Grieving for his dying wife and naturally reticent by nature (“My wife thinks I’m boring,” he admits), Charlie tells Froggy that he will be unable to make conversation with the strangers at the lodge.
Another reason that he feels unable to be sociable, he confesses, is that he recently discovered that his wife was having an affair.
“Where did you discover them?” Froggy asks.
“In the shower,” Charlie replies.
Trying to be helpful, Froggy suggests that he introduce Charlie as a “foreigner” who can’t speak English. While Charlie is protesting this plan, the owner of the lodge, Betty Meeks (a hilarious Tanya White) enters. Froggy and Charlie spontaneously begin speaking in nonsense-words which Betty, in her warm Mother Earth fashion, tries to accommodate to and interpret. And for the rest of this play the extraordinarily talented Niedzwiecki is stuck speaking nothing but gibberish, grinning like an impish schoolboy, and doing little jigs from time to time.
The other visitors are the Reverend David Marshall Lee (David Clayberg) who is not the pious leader he pretends to be, Catherine Simms (Julianna Robinson) his pregnant fiancée, and Owen Musser (Troy Dunn), an unkempt and unscrupulous bigot from the Ku Klux Klan who tells Betty that her house is soon to be condemned. It is his plan to buy the house at a drastically reduced price and make it a meeting-house for the Klan, while the Reverend, in collusion with Musser, wants to buy it as a Christian retreat.
The last member of this motley group is Catherine’s dim-witted younger sister, Ella Simms (Sara Myer), who works at the lodge as Betty’s helper and provides her own cheerful silliness to the goings-on.
Meanwhile, Charlie shrinks into his chair, unnoticed by the others as they discuss their disreputable plans. They are unnerved when they discover him but are relieved when they learn from Betty that he is unable to understand English. Which motivates Ella to become his teacher, one word at a time, and convinces Betty that he will understand her if she shouts loud enough.
Eventually, after staying in the lodge for two days, Charlie becomes confident enough to respond to Froggy’s request that he tell a story “from his native country”. Whereupon he launches into a tremendously protracted dialogue — with gestures and little jumps — in what has become by now his native gibberish. (Elated, he brags to Froggy “I’ve developed a personality!”)
But by the end of this play enough is too much. After two and a half hours it gets a little tiresome to sit through all that gibberish. Although all the players do a good job under Sarah Gurfield’s rather loose direction, she would have done everyone a favor (cast and audience alike) if she had cut a half hour from the show. And there are a number of moments where such cuts might expeditiously be made.
While it opened in New York in 1984 to mixed reviews, “The Foreigner” nevertheless went on to win two Obie Awards and two Outer Critics Circle Awards as the Best New American Play and Best Off-Broadway Production. Here in Los Angeles the play is presented by the Santa Monica Rep, where Sarah Gurfield, a Santa Monica native, is a co-founder, producer, and resident director.
The play runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 4pm through May 20th at The Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd. in Santa Monica. Tickets may be purchased by calling (844) 486-2844 or online at www.santamonicarep.org.