Farce is a scarce commodity in today's American Theater, but it wasn't always so. The 1930s were awash in cleverly conceived comedies in which mistaken identity, misunderstanding, verbal and physical dexterity, and snowballing effects combined to form rapturous, loopy evenings of high and low humor. (Door-slamming optional.)
The great American run, most often abetted by George Abbott, more or less reached its zenith on television. "I Love Lucy," a model of farce construction, was also something of a dead-end; no one really took on the challenge until some blessedly off-kilter geniuses came up with "Frasier." While Ken Ludwig has shown promise with plays like Lend Me a Tenor, the last truly perfect American stage farce was Sly Fox, Larry Gelbart's excruciatingly — almost impossibly — funny 1970s Gold Rush adaptation of Volpone. (Not coincidentally, Gelbart also collaborated with Burt Shevelove and Stephen Sondheim on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the last great American musical farce before The Producers.)
The British, of course, still excel at the genre. "Fawlty Towers" was almost a textbook on the form at its most inspired — although it should be said that British stage farce tends toward a somewhat infantile preoccupation with sexual innuendo.
All of which goes to indicate what a concussive blow was dealt to native farce by the early death of Larry Shue. With The Foreigner, an enormously successful off-Broadway excursion (686 performances on its 1984 debut), Shue exhibited an enviable knack for both the mechanics and the exuberance of classic farce. He wasn't yet a master — The Foreigner has its bumps — but he might well have become its reigning practitioner.
Although The Foreigner isn't produced as often today as it was during the 1980s, it's still a treat when performed with panache, as it is in the Towne Players of Garner's splendid season opener at the Garner Historic Auditorium.
The show's director, Beth F. Honeycutt, has mounted it in high style and with an expert eye fully trained on timing, pace, and delivery. Her almost uniformly excellent cast, headed by the voluptuously gifted Greg Flowers, plays the thing at full-tilt while somehow managing to nourish the unsentimental sweetness at its heart.
The Foreigner concerns the almost pathologically shy British proofreader Charlie Baker (Flowers), brought to the American South by a well-meaning friend who, to ensure Charlie's privacy, convinces the proprietor of a rural Georgia hunting lodge that his companion speaks no English. Charlie's hopes for a placid respite are immediately compromised by the lodge's gregarious owner, Betty Meeks (Frances Stanley), a seemingly saintly minister (Tim Upchurch), his inconveniently pregnant fiancée (Kelly Stansill), her semi-retarded brother (Rusty Sutton), and a property inspector (Jack Chapman) with an unsavory agenda. Add in duplicity, conversations not meant to be overheard, budding romantic attachment, prejudices of every variety, impromptu "foreign" double-talk, and the tattered remnants of a Ku Klux Klan chapter, stir, bake on high, and — viola — a peculiarly American farce rises from the mix.
The Foreigner is the sort of thing it doesn't do to over-analyze: while the play itself is classic farce, its set-up is more than a bit credulity-stretching, and the denouement forgets such sticky bits of reality as the presumed existence and elasticity of Charlie's visa. And Shue's dramaturgy occasionally fails him. It's not established, for example, that the fiancée's brother Ellard is, like many of what we now rather timidly call the mentally challenged, subject to fits in moments of crisis. Thus, when he succumbs late in the second act, the audience — unprepared for Ellard's agony — reacts not in sympathy but with guffaws. They assume it's part of the comedy. And the eagerness with which these Georgians accept Charlie's "miraculous" gift for assimilating English borders on the inane, if not downright stereotypical: the uneducated as proverbial innocent, swallowing whole what others might rightly find suspicious.
Still, the play is so cheerfully good-natured, and so often wildly hilarious, that such cavils scarcely register — especially when played to perfection, as it is here.
Tim Upchurch renders the ersatz reverend David Marshall Lee in all his many colors: imperious lover, erstwhile humanitarian, grubby gigolo, and slightly recalcitrant felon. Kelly Stansill starts by overplaying her irritation as Lee's compromised inamorata Catherine but more than compensates by shading her growing admiration of and affection for Charlie and her increased devotion to her brother with a sure lightness of touch that makes her gradual humanization wholly believable. As the withdrawn and seemingly doltish Ellard, who has more on the ball than anyone imagines, Rusty Sutton gets the details absolutely right. His performance is effortlessly likeable and blithely comic in its utter lack of guile. Becoming Charlie's presumed English instructor (a role bequeathed to him by the gently outraged Englishman), Sutton's Ellard slowly blossoms, his buried sense of self-worth illuminated by the newly lighted candle within.
As the British demolition expert "Froggy" LeSueur, Don Howard is both personable and comically flummoxed by the wholly unexpected changes rung in his compatriot. His capsule summation of Charlie's persona is so accurate at the start that he cannot equate the milquetoasty schlemiel he left at the lodge with the consummately rounded figure he encounters in the second act.
Frances Stanley could scarcely be better as the kind-hearted (if initially shortsighted) lodge-owner Betty. Stanley bubbles with eccentric humor, reacts with uncomprehending dismay to the unexpected, and replicates with unselfconscious aplomb that hoary cliché of the American who, faced with a foreigner, shouts as if the man is hard of hearing rather than linguistically impaired. Only Jack Chapman as the menacing Owen was lacking on the opening weekend — too uncertain of his lines to be as frightening as the character is meant. Yet his superstitious terror at Charlie's fake shamanism, a quality that leavens Owen's sinister mien, is exactly right.
Charlie Baker — his very name a kind of code — is the axis on which everything depends. Without inspired lunacy and unassailable strength of characterization in this central role, The Foreigner falls to bits. In Greg Flowers, Honeycutt has something very like the ideal actor. His performance is joyously and infectiously fearless, as breath taking in its physicality as in its verbal acuity. Beginning as a man who wonders "what it's like to acquire a personality," Flowers' Charlie swiftly metastasizes. Here, surrounded by strangers, he's free to indulge his innate ingenuity, finally embracing the full force of a life he could, previously, barely tolerate.
Looking alarmingly like a younger, trimmer version of John Cleese and locating something of Charlie Chaplin's self-conscious playfulness in his use of facial expression, Flowers creates a fully-formed comedic figure in the exalted tradition of the Holy Fool, here fully aware that in folly lies salvation — or, at least, survival. Like Gogol's Inspector General (or even Jerzy Kosinski's Chance the gardener) Charlie appears to be whatever his interrogators need him to be. To Owen, he's a figure of derision, smiling and stupid — someone before whom anything may be said without fear of comprehension. To Betty, he's a dream come true — the longed-for foreigner of her aging fancies. To Catherine, he's a harmless sounding board in whom she can safely confide her secrets. To Ellard, he's both a playmate who by dint of a language-barrier makes him feel smarter than he is, and an opportunity — a chance to emerge from his sullenness and congenital confusion and become a more functional member of his own small society.
Flowers engages Sutton in a peerless pantomime routine out of Duck Soup, executes a superbly imagined chicken-walk, relates an absurd narrative in exquisitely polished double-talk, and beautifully intimidates Owen by playing up to the old bigot's susceptibility to the supernatural. It's a performance of such consummate skill and timing it borders on the supernal. My only complaint is that the actor sometimes overdoes the mugging, nearly allowing the "takes" that really score to get lost in a plethora of facial embroidery. Still, that's a mighty small bit of gristle to chew when what's laid before us is such an astonishing, robust, and perfectly ordered feast.
The technical director, Scott Honeycutt, has constructed a cunning field on which to play this breakneck farce. The walls of Betty's lodge are a deep Hunter green and festooned with all manner of dead fauna, from mounted fish to stuffed elk. There is also a rather ingenuously designed (and crucial) trapdoor and Betty's beloved spoon collection, wittily conceived. The costumes are a riot of 1980s authenticity, from one hilariously striped Klansman sheet to the Red Man Tobacco cap perpetually perched on Owen's head. The apt make-up extends to a rather perfect little wound on David's Pleistocene brow.
It's hard to dislike a play whose protagonist is dedicated to the humanist task of "making each other more complete and alive," which wears its implicit condemnation of bigotry with so light a touch. And with Greg Flowers on board, resistance, as they say, is futile.
The Towne Players of Garner presents The Foreigner Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 23-25, at 8 p.m. in The Garner Historic Auditorium, 742 West Garner Rd., Garner, North Carolina. $8 ($6 students and seniors). 919/779-6144. http://www.towneplayers.org/.