Since its debut in the mid-Eighties, The Foreigner has become a favorite with both professional and amateur theatre companies, and one of the most recognized titles in contemporary American comedy. I can still recall a window card for the show hanging on the poster-lined wall of the community theatre where I grew up, advertising a production of a play that at that time would have been fairly new. Nowadays, The Foreigner has achieved near-classic status.
Austin Playhouse has always shown an especially pronounced flair for old chestnuts, and its treatment of Larry Shue's comedy is no exception. Don Toner's excellent direction smartly treads the tightrope of farce: The antics are ridiculous, but not to a degree where it's impossible to suspend our disbelief. David Stahl and Michael Stuart are stellar choices for Charlie and Froggy, who concoct a plan for anxious Brit Charlie to act as though he doesn't speak English during his stay at a fishing lodge in Georgia that's seen better days. Lodge owner Betty is played to the hilt of backwoods hilarity by Cyndi Williams, with Lowell Bartholomee equaling her over-the-top performance as the troubled Owen. Jason Newman portrays the Rev. David Lee, Owen's partner in crime, with just the right dose of melodrama – a most useful ingredient for his characterization.
Especially strong throughout the evening are Lara Toner and Stephen Mercantel as Catherine and Ellard Simms, respectively. This is a play that centers on character development, and Toner, Mercantel, and Stahl exemplify the shifting qualities in the journeys of their characters. For the most part, Haydee Antunano's costumes support the actors in communicating these aspects of their work, and the set by Mike Toner tells its story in wonderful tandem with the goings-on it frames.
When theatre critic Frank Rich reviewed the original off-Broadway production (directed by Jerry Zaks) in The New York Times, he commented that it "desperately wants to provide some silly fun," but that "its convoluted shenanigans hardly seem worth the effort." Indeed, between the laughs throughout the first act, one might easily wonder, "Where is this headed?" But partway through the second act, as circumstances take an unexpected turn, the tone changes rapidly and becomes very serious. Though the play doesn't take long to wrap up and provides plenty of additional laughs while doing so, it does have a thesis. Perhaps that's why The Foreigner has proven so successful; there's truly something here for every theatregoer, whether it's a play with a point, an evening of silly laughter, or both – both being exactly what Austin Playhouse's production delivers.
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