Director’s casting job shines in Acrosstown’s ‘Foreigner’


The Acrosstown Repertory Theatre production of “The Foreigner,” with, clockwise from left, Michael McShane as Ellard, Rachel Sheahan as Catherine, Kathy Byrne as Betty, Nazeeh Tarsha as Charlie, Iver Thue as Froggy, Tommy Townsend as Owen, and Eric Hill as David, continues through July 6.

Brad McClenny/Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, June 26, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 25, 2014 at 1:08 p.m.

How to describe the Acrosstown Repertory Theater’s production of “The Foreigner”?

Facts

‘The Foreigner’

What: Larry Shue’s comedy about a visitor who pretends not to speak English at a Georgia fishing lodge
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through July 6
Where: Acrosstown Repertory Theatre, 619 S. Main St.
Tickets: $10
Info: Acrosstown.org

Think the Marx Brothers meets “Birth of a Nation.”

A slapstick smackdown of xenophobia and the Klan.

Heck, one character even bears an uncanny resemblance to Harpo (figure it out for yourself).

“The Foreigner” dates from 1984, but playwright Larry Shue was surely inspired by Hollywood’s golden age of silliness. At scattered moments, classic bits by Abbot and Costello, Laurel and Hardy and the fabulous Marx brothers come to mind.

Not a bad pedigree for a play that sets out to depants the baser human vices: racism, betrayal and greed.

This is funny stuff in the Groucho-esque double-talking, gibberish-spouting tradition.

Virtually all of the action takes place in the dingy sitting room of a long-past-its-prime fishing lodge in rural Tilghman County, about an hour outside Atlanta.

That’s where Brit Staff Sgt. “Froggy” LeSueur stops off each year on his way to do some contract work at a nearby military base. Only this time, Froggy has dragged along his chum, Charlie Baker.

Charlie is a painfully shy proofreader for a science-fiction magazine whose inner torment is compounded by the fact that his wife is both a serial adulteress and, quite possibly, the victim of a terminal illness.

To call Charlie a human cypher does a disservice to cyphers.

“How does one acquire personality?” he asks Froggy. “One is expected to talk ... but I can’t seem to finish sentences.”

But Froggy is off to teach soldiers how to blow things up, and to help his pal survive three days in the company of strangers (and in this lodge, we’re talking Strangers with a capital S) Froggy strikes an ingenious plan.

All Charlie need do is pretend to be a foreigner who doesn’t speak a word of English.

“A typical foreigner ... a bit on the dull side,” he confides to lodge owner Betty. “He mustn’t be spoken to. Foreign as the day is long.”

“The Foreigner” is all about how a disparate group of misfits struggle to break a language barrier that is more feigned than real.

Or more real than feigned.

If the ART’s “Foreigner” works, much credit is due to director Sam Richardson, who has an uncanny knack for casting. All of the characters are credible, not to mention comfortable, in their assigned roles.

Iver Thue, as the irrepressible Froggy, laves on a Cockney accent with a trowel and jerks about with a kinetic energy that makes one suspect he has set off altogether too many explosions.

And speaking of language barriers, it’s a wonder that Kathy Byrne’s marvelously muddle-headed Betty Meeks can understand anybody, let alone be understood.

“We’ve got kind of an extra-circular communication thing going on, him and me,” Betty gushes of her rapport with Charlie. “I had a pet skunk once, and I knew what he was thinking too.”

Rachel Sheahan — she of the arched eyebrows, locked-jaw and killer scowl — practically steals the show as Catherine Simms, the embittered heiress who misses terribly her debutant days. Engaged to the Rev. David Marshall Lee (Eric Hill with just the right Jimmy Carter-drawl) Catherine finds herself in a family way and frets about walking down the aisle bulging like a watermelon on her still-distant wedding day.

“Honey I know how you feel,” placates her scheming fiance.

“No,” she retorts, voice dripping acid, “You do not!”

Tommy Townsend is spot on as Owen, the redneck Klansman who is a co-conspirator in the Rev. Lee’s plot to take over Betty’s lodge using Catherine’s money. By turns fencepost-dumb, fox-sly and rattlesnake-mean, Townsend’s Owen could be a poster boy for Klan recruiters.

“We don’t get many of your kind in these parts,” Owen tells the foreigner, his red Georgia dirt twang betraying dark things to come.

Mike McShane is over the top as Ellard, Catherine’s supposedly half-wit brother whose bizarre hip-hop/backwoods bumpkin split personality masks a hidden intelligence aching to bust free. Ellard’s hilarious breakfast scene with the foreigner is a show stopper.

Can you say “fork?” Not so fast.

By the way, McShane’s first appearance on stage proves that this actor knows how to make an entrance. And how to make an exit.

But, really, Nazeeh Tarsha’s Charlie Baker is the irresistible force that shatters this comedy of barriers. Tarsha’s measured transformation from near inanimate object to gibberish-spouting con man to fast-thinking hero is a thing to behold. And, honestly, this guy knows how to tell a story — even one constructed entirely from made-up words.

Let’s just say that when words fail, Tarsha’s body language does the trick.

“I think I’m acquiring a personality,” Charlie, awestruck, tells Froggy. “People here seem to give it to me piece by piece.”

It’s true, all the pieces fall into place in the ART’s “The Foreigner.”

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