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`Foreigner` Brings Home The Laughs

Chicago Tribune
October 3, 1985
By Richard Christiansen

“The Foreigner,'' which had its Chicago-area premiere Wednesday night at the Forum Theater, is a distinctly old-fashioned comedy, which may be one of the big reasons for its success.

Larry Shue`s play, introduced in 1983 at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre and now a long-run off-Broadway hit in New York despite early negative reviews, is so consciously quaint that it takes one back to the days of summer stock, when an intricately plotted comedy-melodrama filled with shy heroes, two-faced villains, eccentric characters, elaborate comic business and surprising revelations could endlessly entertain vast numbers of people.

Indeed, ''The Foreigner'' may be so outrageously old--its story even centers on a plot to dispossess a kindly widow--that 1980s audiences are finding it refreshing. It’s sweet spirited and on the side of the angels, offering a neatly constructed story in which all loose ends are tied up, so that villains are vanquished, the boy gets the girl, good triumphs and a snappy bit of dialogue brings down the curtain in a last burst of laughter.

Placed in a single-set hunting lodge in rural Georgia, the play takes a long time cranking up its basic situation and introducing us to its hero, Charlie Baker (played by Steve Merle), an English fellow so ill at ease and boring in social situations that his traveling companion, a bluff English Army man (Robert Scogin), pawns Charlie off to the widowed owner of the lodge (Lolly Trauscht) and her few guests as a foreigner whose English is limited to ''thank you.''

Once this comic premise is set up, Shue gets a lot of melodramatic and farcical mileage out of his hero`s position. As one who supposedly doesn`t understand a word of English, Charlie sits in the middle of the lodge, being pampered by his adoring hostess and at the same time hearing all sorts of outrageous conversation and dark plottings from the people around him. These include a goody-goody preacher (Steven Breese), his former socialite fiance (Chloe Dart), her dim-witted brother (Peter Rybolt) and a stupid redneck who hates all ''furriners'' (Ray Frewen).

Shue is very good at keeping this pot boiling, and he has some wonderful fun with Charlie`s feigned foreignness, particularly in a breakfast table scene in which he learns English with a Southern accent.

George Darveris` direction, patterned after the original off-Broadway staging of Jerry Zaks, punches over the big laugh lines with a stream of double-takes and fast footwork; and the actors roar into their roles with a hearty, engaging pleasure.

Merle is a sweet Charlie--gangly, plain and awkward, but quick on the draw when the time for a comic bit or a heroic move comes along.

Trauscht is in great folksy form as the lodge owner, cooing over her pet guest and inventing for him exactly the kind of personality she wants to see in him. Rybolt is most endearing as the sweet simpleton who befriends Charlie and teaches him to read Shakespeare in one hour.

One can sneer at the antique nature of ''The Foreigner,'' but it`s a very cleverly crafted piece of work. It doesn`t have a mean bone in its body, and it takes great pleasure in supplying the laughter and suspense that keep it rolling.

Shue`s death in a plane crash last week ended what promised to be an expanding career. In ''The Foreigner,'' however, he already has left behind a popular comedy that is fascinating in his re-invention of a form all but vanished from contemporary theater.

A comedy by Larry Shue, directed by George Darveris, with a set by Karen Schulz, costumes by Rita Ryack and lighting by Paul Gallo. Opened Oct. 2 at the Forum Theater, 5620 S. Harlem Ave., Summit, and plays at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 6:30 and 9:30 p.m. Saturdays and 2:15 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Length of performance, 2:30. Tickets are $15.50 to $20, with discounts available for groups, senior citizens and students. Phone 496-3000.