The Foreigner: A Droll Look At Seeing What You Want To See

Mathew Minor and Andre Sellon ape each other in the Maltz Jupiter Theatre's The Foreigner / Photo by Jen  Vasbinder

Mathew Minor and Andre Sellon ape each other in the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s The Foreigner / Photo by Jen Vasbinder

October and November are jammed with openings, as many as seven in one week. To find reviews of all the current productions, click on the “Reviews” tab in white letters in the teal bar in the upper left-hand corner.

By Bill Hirschman

In an America where an Islamic name raises eyebrows and Latin immigration is one of the hottest topics, the 1983 comedy The Foreigner seems ripe for its revival at Maltz Jupiter Theatre.

But Larry Shue’s play is less a satire about American xenophobia than a gentle farce about the nature of communication and the human tendency to see what we want to see. Faced with what is really a blank slate, we see our own reflection.

The leisurely but perfectly paced production will be a bit too laid back for the Maltz audiences seeking splashy musicals or classic plays with recognizable titles.

The Foreigner is a wry, knowing comedy, good-naturedly poking fun at human frailties and overlaid with a wacky daftness. The incisively observed social satire is sheathed in a broad, almost slapstick quality, sort of like Moliere crossed with The Three Stooges.

The plot introduces us to Charlie Baker, an English proofreader at a science-fiction magazine and a socially-crippled milquetoast terrified of conversing with almost anyone. His wife back in London has been diagnosed with a fatal illness, but she has cuckolded him so many times that she is happy to send him off overseas with his old Army buddy, Froggy LeSueur.

In an example of the intentionally improbable set-up, LeSueur (as in peas) brings Charlie with him on his annual assignment to teach explosives to American soldiers at a fort in the Georgia backwoods. He drops off Charlie at the remote fishing resort run by his friend, the elderly widow, Betty Meeks.

Charlie wants no human interaction, so Froggy hits upon an idea: He will introduce Charlie as a visitor from an unnamed country who speaks no English. That should keep him from having to deal with Betty and her boarders, the handsome Rev. David Marshall Lee; his fiancée, the lovely but spoiled heiress Catherine Simms, and her slow-witted hulk of a brother Ellard, plus the racist Owen who has some mysterious relationship with David and who looks like an escape from the movie Deliverance. There are more clashing accents here than a meeting nod UN Security Council.

The fun is watching the “foolproof” plan spin out of control. Because everyone thinks he can’t understand them, people tend to unburden their secrets to him or don’t mind when he is present as some devious plotting is solidified. They also impose their own needs or character on him. The mothering Betty, for instance, flatters herself that she can understand more or less what he’s saying when, of course, he’s saying nothing but gibberish.

The nebbishy zero Charlie begins to develop a personality and some character as he gets thrust into ratcheting up situations with people whose lives he ends up changing.

A little patience is called for. Shue has to drop in a lot of exposition in the first act to make the relationships and conspiracies come clear, so the comedy really doesn’t reach its stride until the second act.

But his script outlines some hilarious situations that rely on an inventive, skilled cast led by an even more resourceful director, Matt Lenz. One classic scene has Ellard “teaching” Charlie how to eat breakfast in a silent pantomime; another is when Charlie, facing down the Ku Klux Klan (yes, that’s right) sternly issues forth with a stream of stern nonsense including “Klaatu barada nikto” from the movie The Day The Earth Stood Still. And finally, there’s Charlie acting out a funny story to a delighted audience in the lodge, using only his invented on-the-fly language and exaggerated gestures.

The linchpin is Andrew Sellon’s creation of the woebegone Charlie. Sellon was one of the multi-faceted chameleons in the Maltz’s The 39 Steps from 2011 and he is an inspired choice to play the clown. Physically, he has all the right body language from the discomfort in his own skin to the wildly animated hero-in-the-making as the play progresses. But his secret is a face seemingly made of rubber. Sellon owns a wide array of expressions from the sad sack sorrow of Stan Laurel and the infinite grimaces of Howard Morris (from The Andy Griffith Show and Your Show of Shows, if you remember that far back). Sellon’s slight frame is topped with a head notable for a receding hairline and bulging deer in the headlights eyes. He is especially winning with a slight glint comes to Charlie’s eyes when he realizes he can have fun with the situation and surreptitiously manipulate those around him.

Carrington Vilmont makes a clean-cut sonorous preacher David, Matthew Minor is an endearingly earnest Ellard, Brooks Anne Hayes reprises the solicitous rustic Betty, David Sitler is the repugnant backwoods skunk Owen, Michael Edwards intentionally and improbably combines an Aussie and cockney accent for Froggy, and Maddie Jo Landers starts out as a pretty shrewish privileged Catherine but she softens over time, although not very credibly

As always, the Maltz’s creative team is note perfect, especially Rob Odorisio’s cozy fishing lodge with its clapboard exterior, wood-paneled interior, exposed log-timbered roof trusses and stone fireplace that puffs out smoke.

The Foreigner doesn’t have a swirling barricade or gavotting waiters. But on its own merits, The Foreigner is an entertaining evening.

The Foreigner
runs through Nov. 9 at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road in Jupiter. Performances at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Running time: About two hours 20 minutes including one intermission Tickets are $54-$83, Student rush $20 based on availability. Call (561) 575-2223 or visit jupitertheatre.org.

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