By Laurie Dietrich
At least until the lights go down, the set of Larry Shue's The Foreigner looks oddly incongruous in the beautifully restored jewelbox that is the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre. Like a Bob Ross painting in a gilded baroque frame.
Christopher McCollum's set is certainly familiar. There aren't a lot of options for staging The Foreigner. Like the play itself, the set is a carefully crafted creation designed to meet some very specific technical requirements in a disarmingly artless way.
The biography-intensive program lists reams of impressive credits for all the company members - many of which sound much more interesting than another production of The Foreigner (most of us in the theater community haven't just seen this show at least once, we've been in it). The program is a catalog of mouth-watering entrées, none of which are on tonight's menu. And to torture that metaphor further, when was the last time you sat in the theatre hoping for an understudy announcement? I was, after reading that the impeccable Karen Jones understudies the (ostensibly) female roles.
I'll confess to a prejudice up front. I'm nervous about the cross-dressing. The show is a broad comic farce, situational rather than character-driven, but well-written enough that the characters have depth. Nuance is possible. And in my experience the audience's ability to appreciate nuance goes right out the window when a man wearing a dress comes through the door.
And, OK, I'll just say it. The Foreigner? Again? Not only has the show been done to death, it was done to death 10 years ago. It's dated (the "foreign guy" is suspected of being a communist), and the most obvious comedy relies on Southern stereotyping. It's tempting to ask why, if they wanted to make fun of Southerners and dress in drag, the stars of the show, Jaston Williams and Joe Sears of Greater Tuna fame, didn't just serve up some more Tuna.
They may have been prompted by nostalgia, as much of this company has been touring the show together for years. There's a family feeling among the cast that makes for good chemistry, but also maybe a little too much complacence. The famous "breakfast scene," for example, a masterpiece of dialogue-free, physical comedy, looked altogether too choreographed on opening night. Williams, whose character Charlie Baker (the Foreigner himself) is supposed to be improvising on the spot, mimicking the movements of another guest, the sweet simpleton Ellard (Tim Mateer), at a rural Georgia fishing lodge, seemed to fall into lock-step with Mateer, like a Rockette, instead.
In fact, halfway through the first act, I realized that Sears' Betty-Meeks-in-Drag is not my problem with this production. My problem is that the whole thing just looks too polished, too crisp, too clean, too flat. Too done.
The tech is excellent, and one place where "too polished" isn't possible. Ken Huncovsky's sound, with the exception of one canned-sounding explosion effect, is atmospheric and enriching, and Root Choyce's lighting design, particularly in the low-light scenes, is excellent - supportive without being intrusive.
The second act is much better. As written, it's less character-dependent, more plot-driven, and reliant on physical comedy. Here the heightened tone the cast has been hitting all along makes sense, and their experience and technique shine. The pacing is excellent, the laughs are truly earned. This is where the work building character in the first act really pays off, and the strength of the script can be seen in this production, where the payoff largely comes through, even though not much work was invested in fleshing out the characters in the first place.
It's still a funny play. A well-crafted example of its genre, even if it's beginning to feel a bit like a museum piece. The production is competent, just not very detailed. They've settled for craft, and the result is a good-enough evening of entertainment. Sears and Williams (who received rounds of applause at their entrances and one of SA's near-ubiquitous Standing O's at their bow) don't need to do more than stand on stage to get laughs around here. But they're capable of a lot more. •