The first thing you’ll probably hear about Hampton Theatre Company’s new production of “The Foreigner” is that it’s pretty darn funny.
That’s quite true, but what you might not hear about this gem of a play, which will continue for two weekends at the Quogue Community Hall, is that, while on the surface it is a farce, it’s also a sweet testament to the genuine, magical bedrock of human nature.
“The Foreigner,” written by Larry Shue and first performed in 1984, is the story of Charlie Baker (Matthew Conlon), a British proofreader for a science fiction magazine who is convinced by an old military buddy, “Froggy” LeSueuer (Terry Brockbank), to embark on a trip to a fishing lodge in the Georgia woods to take his mind off his wife’s impending death.
Shy Charlie, terrified at the idea of meeting new people in his distressed state, convinces Froggy to concoct an elaborate ruse to keep Charlie from having to interact with anyone, setting off a series of more and more ridiculous events that culminate in a showdown with the Ku Klux Klan and an evil building inspector.
The characters in “The Foreigner” are broadly drawn, and that’s intentional. There’s the wealthy Georgia belle Catherine (Krista Kurtzberg) and her dull-witted brother Ellard (Ben Schnickel). There’s the evil redneck Owen Musser (James Ewing) and backwoods matron innkeeper Betty Meeks (Diana Marbury). There’s David Marshall Lee (Joe Pallister), a preacher with none-so-holy intentions and a faint family connection to Robert E. Lee, who plans to marry the Georgia belle.
Any one of these characters could have been played to type, with little imagination, but Shue gives them a little more to work with, and each of the actors brings a boisterous, innocent enthusiasm to their roles, rescuing them from resorting to stereotype.
Ms. Marbury and Mr. Schnickel turn in particularly solid performances, but their characters are given the most room for growth. Betty Meeks desperately wants to meet foreigners, to learn their ways, to escape from her backwoods existence. Ellard knows people think he’s dumb, but darn it, he’d really like to recite Shakespeare.
Catherine, well, she knows there’s more to life than a Georgia fishing lodge, and David Marshall Lee, with the help of Owen Musser, may just prove that the evilest of hearts can lie behind a veneer of holiness.
Matthew Conlon plays Charlie, with a perfect wry smile teasing his lips as the other characters, unaware that he can understand them, unveil the plot. He simply nods, smiles and drinks his tea. It isn’t until the second act that Charlie’s pent-up penchant for physical comedy and speaking in tongues takes flight, and that’s where Mr. Conlon really shines.
It takes a great deal of the first act to introduce the characters and set up the storyline. That’s a fault in the writing, not in this production, adeptly directed by HTC Executive Director Sarah Hunnewell.
The hilarity springs up, suddenly, when Charlie is left alone midway through the performance with the dullard Ellard, who decides he’s going to teach this strange, mute foreigner to speak English.
Charlie proves a star pupil, learning English at breakneck speed as the other denizens of the lodge look on in amazement, and telling elaborate, sidesplitting stories in his fake native language, which sounds like a cross between Russian and Klingon.
Charlie and Ellard’s delightfully madcap friendship was made possible by Charlie’s initial deception, but the honesty of their emotional abandon rings a bell of a greater truth.
When Froggy grabs a moment alone with Charlie and asks if he wants to call off the deception, Charlie refuses, with perhaps the most vocal certitude of his entire life. By becoming a new person, he realized, he has found his true self, hidden for years behind the proofreader’s desk. He’s not only helped Ellard feel competent, but, by the end of the show, he hatches a plan to save his new friends from an awful, evil plot. And he has the audience with him, rooting for him all the way.
To find out more, you’ll need to go see “The Foreigner” for yourself.
Showtimes are Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays are at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. through March 30. Tickets are available online here.