Dave and I just got back from a really wonderful production of Larry Shue’s farce The Foreigner at the Contra Costa Civic Theatre. I saw the first off-Broadway production starring Anthony Heald in the late 1980s, and I became an instant fan and saw it one or two more times (I forget now which). I’ve not seen it again till now, though I’ve reread it several times over the years with great pleasure; I don’t know why the play isn’t done all the time, but it isn’t. This production seems just as good to me as the off-Broadway production was, though of course it has its differences and is weaker in some ways and stronger in others.
Ryan O’Donnell’s performance as Charlie, the phony “foreigner” of the title, is quite different from Heald’s (or at least my memory of it) but in some ways he’s even more convincing in the role than Heald was. That may be something of a backhanded compliment, as Charlie is such a total nebbish at the start of the play, but be that as it may, O’Donnell nails the nebbish and then nails every step of Charlie’s transformation. I thought Aaron Murphy as the slow-witted Ellard was the other standout — my memory may be weak but I don’t remember Ellard being played with so much detail and so much heart off-Broadway. But the whole ensemble is just really, really good.
Larry Shue died young, not long after writing The Foreigner; had he lived, we wouldn’t be talking about how The Foreigner was his last play but about how it was the first play in which he’d really mastered his craft. It’s an intricate farce, the sort of comedy where you spend the first twenty minutes being shown dozens of assorted bits and pieces of story and character, and then you spend the rest of the play gasping with delight and disbelief as the playwright takes this assortment of gears and pulleys and ratchets and puts them together to make an astonishingly tricky and hilarious clockwork machine. And yet in this play Shue also created a number of genuinely memorable characters who don’t feel mechanical at all, some of whom you even come to like and care about, even as you’re laughing at the impossible tangle they’re getting themselves into — or at least I do. I’m a big fan of Shue’s earlier farce, The Nerd, too, but in that one the characters never really stop feeling like the playwright’s puppets; The Foreigner has a heart and soul that The Nerd doesn’t. It’s a huge shame and a great loss to us all that, once he had brought himself to this level of mastery of the craft, having at last found his way to a distinctive and confident voice as a playwright, this is the only play that Shue then had time to give us.
Really fine production of one of the best farces I know. Definitely worth a visit. Gok! Gok! Blasny blasny!