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'The Foreigner,' Romantic Comedy

Off-Broadway premiere
New York Times
November 2, 1984
By Frank Rich

Anthony Heald is American, but, in a few seasons, he has become one of the New York theater's funniest and most stylish English character actors. The secret of Mr. Heald's success is not simply his ability to mimic accents. His comic portraits are meticulously detailed in every way - so much so that they leave an impression far larger than the size of his roles might indicate. Theatergoers may not remember Mr. Heald's name or face, but they don't quickly forget his performances as Gunner in the Roundabout's 1981 ''Misalliance,'' as the accident-prone schoolteacher in ''Quartermaine's Terms,'' or as the Welsh pedant, Fluellen, in last summer's Central Park ''Henry V.''

It was only a matter of time before Mr. Heald would be rewarded with a star turn. In Larry Shue's ''Foreigner,'' the new farce at the Astor Place, he has it - but the blessings are at best mixed. Certainly Mr. Heald's part, that of a painfully shy Englishman named Charlie, could have been written for him. Charlie is a likeable wimp, a proofreader at a science-fiction magazine, whose wit lurks just beneath a mournful personality characterized as ''shatteringly, profoundly boring.'' As Mr. Heald gradually transforms this anonymous clerk into a nutty hero, his performance is anything but boring. The same cannot be said, I'm afraid, of Mr. Shue's labored play.

''The Foreigner'' desperately wants to provide some silly fun. As the author's incredible premise has it, Charlie has traveled from England to a fishing lodge in rural Georgia for a weekend of relaxation. So fearful is the man of having to engage in conversation with strangers, however, that he masquerades as a non-English-speaking ''foreigner'' of indeterminate national origin. The gullible local yokels fall for the ruse, and soon they are blithely spilling their darkest secrets in the presence of their seemingly mute and uncomprehending visitor.

This preposterous plot requires a full act to set up - with much of the exposition delivered by the playwright himself, appearing in the role of an English soldier who unaccountably deposits Charlie in Georgia. Yet, when ''The Foreigner'' finally gets going, its convoluted shenanigans hardly seem worth the effort. The other occupants of the lodge are all stereotypical rubes; their tedious crises, which the eavesdropping Charlie must ultimately straighten out, include a dspute over an inheritance, an ill-advised shotgun marriage and a clandestine Ku Klux Klan conspiracy to establish the headquarters for ''a new Christian white nation.''

Perhaps a master of buffoonery, such as Michael Frayn or Larry Gelbart, could cook up something from this inane recipe. With Mr. Shue, we usually spot both the story twists and punchlines well before they actually arrive. We also guess the play's supposedly heartwarming payoff well in advance: Once the nebbishy Charlie is forced to come to the rescue of the evening's victims, he is destined to acquire both the self-confidence and devoted romantic partner that have always eluded him back in England.

Jerry Zaks, the director who's brought so much zing to Christopher Durang's comedies, stages ''The Foreigner'' nimbly on a Karen Schulz set that is weirdly reminiscent of the hunting lodge of ''Moose Murders.'' The supporting players - Sudie Bond, Robert Schenkkan, Kevin Geer, Patricia Kalember, Christopher Curry and Mr. Shue - are all able. But the only sustained treat comes during the play's one clever scene - in which Charlie is suddenly forced to break his reclusive pose and teach the others his ''foreign'' language. Frantically spinning gobbledygook phrases in a myriad of ersatz dialects, Mr. Heald suggests a young Peter Sellers ready to be tapped for a role that might be his own Inspector Clouseau.

A Recluse's Ruse THE FOREIGNER, by Larry Shue; directed by Jerry Zaks; settings designed by Karen Schulz; costumes designed by Rita Ryack; lighting designed by Paul Gallo; sound designed by Aural Fixation; production stage manager, George Darveris; associate producers, Nancy B. Hoover, Douglas M. Lawson and Gina Rogak. Presented by John A. McQuiggan. At the Astor Place Theater, 434 Lafayette Street. ''Froggy'' LeSueur Larry Shue, Charlie Baker Anthony Heald, Betty Meeks Sudie Bond, The Rev. David Marshall Lee Robert Schenkkan, Catherine Simms Patricia Kalember, Owen Musser Christopher Curry, Ellard Simms Kevin Geer.