There’s a disclaimer of sorts in Jack Neary’s director’s note for The Foreigner, New Century Theatre’s season opener, playing through this weekend in its temporary digs at PVPA, the area’s performing arts high school in South Hadley. In it, Neary acknowledges that Larry Shue’s popular comedy “can easily be interpreted as an incisive commentary on our current political climate,” but “Me, I just think it’s funny.”
Yes, certain aspects of the show ring more persistently these days than when it debuted in 1984 (a meaningful date in itself). But for this theatergoer, that topical echo doesn’t distract from the play’s comical goings-on. In fact, as performed by an across-the-board excellent cast, it enriches them.
The Foreigner is a twist on the mistaken-identity farce, founded on a fruitfully preposterous premise. Charlie, a painfully shy Englishman is staying in a backwoods-Georgia hunting-lodge-cum-inn. Catatonically afraid of having to converse with the other guests, he pretends to be a native of an obscure Slavic country who doesn’t speak or understand a word of English. The current-events resonance comes from the locals’ response to the visitor. Where most of them see an adorably exotic curiosity, others find a symptom of the existential peril posed by outsiders to their “white, Christian” way of life.
The plot may be implausible fiction, but the play’s xenophobes are the real-life Invisible Empire, a.k.a. the Ku Klux Klan – which, by the way, has not at all been superseded these days by newer white-nationalist cabals. As an election-day post on the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website crowed, “Our Glorious Leader has ascended to God Emperor.”
The ethno-purists are represented by Owen Musser, a not-so-good ol’ boy played with a greasy growl by Rand Foerster, and the respectable Reverend Lee (distant relative of Robert E.), a slick hypocrite in the Ted Cruz mold, given an oily charm by Scott Braidman. The pair are plotting to cheat the inn’s elderly owner out of her property and Lee’s fiancée out of her inheritance.
The target of the plot’s “Will poor Granny lose the farm?” counterpart is the inn’s motherly proprietor, played to y’all-c’mon-in perfection by Ellen Barry. She’s totally accepting of someone who’s “different,” and that includes eager, affable, slightly retarded Ellard (a delightful Christopher Michael Rojas), who ultimately and triumphantly exceeds the others’ expectations.
Ellard’s sister Catherine (Sandra Blaney, vacuous and vivacious in a succession of Nancy Horn’s lurid costumes) is beautiful, shallow – and of course, blonde – and engaged to Rev. Lee. She finds in Charlie the perfect mute vessel for her chattering thoughts and fearful secrets. Froggy, the English army sergeant who deposits Charlie at the inn before heading off for maneuvers (don’t even ask) is played by James Emery with Cockney panache.
The play revolves around Charlie, and B. Brian Argotsinger gives it a delicious twirl. The guy’s timid journey from saucer-eyed terror at the prospect of chatting with strangers to not only accepting but embracing his new persona is enchanting and hilarious. It put me in mind of another foreigner – the ambitious immigrant in Jason Kim’s The Model American, which recently debuted at Williamstown Theatre Festival, whose maxim is “You are who you pretend to be.”
Daniel D. Rist’s rustic lodge setting is a vision of pine-paneled warmth and trophy wildlife. The stage in PVPA’s auditorium-theater is steeply raked to enhance sightlines from the floor-level seating, though it’s unfortunate that the staging requirement for a climactic surprise pushes too much of the furniture and blocking upstage. Matthew Cowan’s lighting produces some nifty storm, headlight and explosion effects. The performance takes a while to find its pace, but once the exposition is out of the way the laughs start coming and the comedy, carried on its newly relevant undercurrent, sparkles.
Tuesday-Saturday, July 11-15, 7:30 p.m., Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School, 15 Mulligan Drive, South Hadley, MA. Tickets at newcenturytheatre.tix.com or (413) 587-3933.