A Foreign Friend

   As the cliché goes, laughter truly is the best medicine. It is the perfect remedy for dealing with an ill and unloving wife, or a fiancé who is secretly a member of the KKK, or even a paralyzing fear of conversation.

   If you adhere to this prescription, then you’ll adore The Foreigner, playing at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre through November 9. Set in a fishing lodge in small-town Georgia in the not-too-distant past, The Foreigner revolves around—you guessed it—a foreigner named Charlie, who is inflicted with a crippling fear of small talk and is visiting from England as a reprise from his unappreciative wife. When his friend Froggy drops him off at the lodge, owned by the lovingly low-country Betty Meeks, Froggy pretends Charlie is another type of foreigner—the kind who doesn’t speak English—so that Charlie can spend his vacation in silence. Needless to say, hilarity and misunderstandings ensue.

   As the opener for the Maltz’s 2014-2015 season, The Foreigner is a delightful kickoff to a textured season that includes such classics as Fiddler on the Roof, Glengarry Glen Ross and Les Misérables. Producing Artistic Director Andrew Kato handed this lighthearted comedy over to Director Matt Lenz, who teases out nuance and physical comedy from what—at times—feels like a slightly dated script by Larry Shue. Thankfully, stellar character performances from all the principals elevate this play from saccharine slapstick to raucous romp.

   Place is an important secondary character in The Foreigner. Of course, the unidentified nationality of Charlie’s alter ego is an ever-present theme, but the immediate setting also greatly informs the humor, plot and characterization. Scenic designer Rob Odorisio does an amazing job of bringing Betty Meeks’ modest lodge to life, complete with well-worn wood details, a lived-in flannel couch and bygone board games scrambled about.

Brooks Anne Hayes (Betty), Maddie Jo Landers (Catherine) and Matthew Minor (Ellard) in The Foreigner. Photo by Alicia Donelan

   The characters that call Tilghman County, Georgia home personify small-town living. As Betty Meeks, Brooks Anne Hayes is as charming as the girls from Here Comes Honey Boo Boo wish they could be; she packs a killer mid-Georgia accent and shares anecdotes about her long-lost pet skunk with the utmost sincerity.

   Two of Betty Meeks’ residents, brother and sister Catherine and Ellard Simms, are the inheritors of a small fortune, which Catherine’s minister fiance, Rev. David Marshall Lee, hopes to squander on a sinister plan. Carrington Vilmont plays Rev. David with the same slimy faux charm found in a villain from a 1980s John Hughes film—he’s all preppy style and no cunning. As Catherine, Maddie Jo Landers keeps the 80s theme alive, but this time in a spoiled, Valley Girl incarnation.

Brooks Anne Hayes (Betty) and Andrew Sellon (Charlie) in The Foreigner. Photo by Alicia Donelan

   The “foreigner” Charlie, played with spunk by Andrew Sellon, is the heart of this comedy. His transformation from meek copy editor to outspoken hero is particularly poignant given Sellon’s performance. One minute he’s mute and blending in with a chair in a brown fabric-on-brown blanket touch of physical comedy genius. The next he’s hopping around and raising his voice three octaves to tell a story in his feigned native tongue. As an actor, he clearly finds joy in the jump from mousy to bombastic and flourishes in the space between slapstick and drama. Thoroughly exhausting and onstage practically the whole time, Sellon definitely earns himself a spot on the short list for a Carbonell Award.

   The only inconsistency, and therefore shortcoming, to be found in this production is the timeline. Shue wrote The Foreigner in 1984 and the time is described in the program as the recent past. A passing remark about Kate Middleton’s newborn son puts the happenings in July 2013, but the lack of cellphones, abundant references to the KKK as a prominent problem and general out-of-date aura diminish the play’s authenticity.

   This, however, is a small qualm and doesn’t distract from the overall product, which stands as one of the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s strongest—and absolutely funniest—productions ever.


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