Monday, March 16, 2009

A Review of The Foreigner

ICCT - One of the dangers of seeing as much theatre as I do is the risk of becoming jaded. When I heard ICCT was producing The Foreigner, my first thought was "Oh no, not again!" I have seen The Foreigner five or six times in the last ten years or so. So I did not relish the idea of seeing the show again. And yet it turns out even a jaded theatre goer like myself can be coaxed into loud guffaws at the clever humor in the late Larry Shue's classic comedy.

The story is straightforward. Charlie is getting away from an unhappy home with the help of his friend Froggy, who sets Charlie up in a room in Betty's boarding house for a few nights. However, Charlie doesn't want to talk to anyone, so Froggy convinces everyone that Charlie is a foreigner who doesn't understand or speak English. Also at the boarding house are Catherine and her brother Ellard, who quickly become attached to Charlie. Because everyone thinks he can't understand them, Charlie learns that there is a plan to get Catherine's money through nefarious means, use it to buy the boarding house, and make it a headquarters for a terrorist organization. Okay, so maybe straightforward isn't the best word to use to describe the plot.

While most of the actors are quite good, one stood out among them: Lane Hanon, who played Ellard, a Forrest Gump-like character who "teaches" Charlie English. He perfectly embodies the character of Ellard with an open face, effective tics, and a voice that is believable. It is easy to create a caricature and not a character; Hanon avoids that pitfall. I have never seen Hanon in such a large role before. Hopefully, his excellent work as Ellard will encourage future directors to give him a shot at other challenging roles.

Also good was Scot Hughes as Charlie. It was clear the actor relished every minute of the role, using excellent comedic timing to wring every laugh out of the material. He enjoyed good chemistry with Kenneth Van Egdon who played Froggy. Both are actors used to commanding a stage and they worked very well together. Iowa City theatre veteran Evelyn Stanske was perfectly cast as Betty and she nailed her comedic moments perfectly.

Less successful were the "bad guys" in the play: Owen Musser played by Glenn Singer and Rev. David Lee played by Tim Demuth. Reverend Lee is supposed to be a sneaky, clever villain and someone capable of charming Catherine without her realizing his true nature. However, it's difficult to believe Catherine would ever have had much use for him because Demuth doesn't display the charm the character needs. Owen is a vile character but Singer plays him as a punchline instead of delving into his evil depths. Because of that, he doesn't come across as a worthy adversary and we don't feel the characters are in that much danger. However, one has to give Singer credit for excellently playing the comedic parts of his character.

Erin Mills is a fine actress and ably creates a sympathetic character in Catherine. However, something seemed off and I was unfairly returning to her in trying to figure out what it was. It wasn't until intermission when talking to a friend that it became clear what wasn't working for me. In other productions I've seen, Charlie has been played by a much younger actor. This allowed for a little bit of flirtation between the characters of Charlie and Catherine, which gives us more of a stake in what's going on. Because of the age difference between Mills and Hughes, that relationship was unfocused and Mills' performance was affected. (It is worth noting that the Charlie character as written is supposed to be around Hughes' age. Still, in my opinion, the play is better served with a younger actor in the role to allow for a more interesting dynamic between Charlie and Catherine. Or perhaps an older actress for the role of Catherine.)

The set was well done including the trap door that is pivotal to the ending. Kudos to set designer Rich Riggleman's attention to detail. Many moons ago, a drama teacher told me that if a director does a good job, the audience shouldn't even notice that there was direction. In other words, the movements of the characters flow naturally across the stage and yet never overwhelm any one part of it. It's the challenge of making artificial movements seem natural. My drama teacher would have definitely given Gerry Roe's direction an A.

If you have a chance, definitely take the time to see this classic American comedy. ICCT has done an excellent job bringing the hilarity to stage.

--Matthew Falduto

Matthew has a Bachelor's degree in English from the University of Iowa. He has directed, acted in, and produced theater in the Iowa City area for over ten years. He has worked with the Iowa City Community Theatre, City Circle and Dreamwell, of which he is a founder. Two of his plays have been produced in the Iowa City area. In another brief life, he also worked as a technical writer.


I'm Not Larry Shue said...

Your comment about the age difference between Charlie and Catherine is well-taken ... but that is indeed how the script is written. Charlie has been working as a proofreader "for 27 years now," which makes him mid-forties at the youngest. Catherine says she was a debutante "about a year ago," which makes her very early twenties at the oldest. I think there is definitely a flirtatious relationship between the two characters. Whether the audience thinks that's creepy or not, well ... either that or Charlie was a gifted proofreader at the age of nine. :)

ICTheatreGuy said...

Thanks for your comment. I doubt creepy is really what Shue was going for in that relationship! But hey maybe Charlie was a proofreadin' prodigy...

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if it is proper to respond to your own review, but I'm the actor you accused of playing Owen Musser as a punchline, instead of delving into his more evil side. You gave Gerry Roe's direction high praise, and I agree with you, he was a fantastic director to work with. But I must point out to you that I played the role the way my director suggested I play it. He even pointed out lines that I was saying straight and suggested that I play them as a punchline... with all due respect, it seems rather shortsighted and mean-spirited of you to blast the actor and praise the director.

ICTheatreGuy said...

Your point is well taken. Thanks for the comment.