The Foreigner

Corrections or additions?

These reviews by Simon Saltzman were prepared for the December 8,

2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

‘night, Mother

When Marsha Norman’s play "’night, Mother" had its Broadway premiere

in 1983, its impact was powerful and unforgettable. Since then the

play has fascinated as many people with its bold and risk taking

theme, and has probably frightened as many people away.

Holding the attention of those willing to commit to the play’s

intensely personal and private subject, Norman’s Pulitzer

Prize-winning play also contains both compassion and large dollops of

irreverently trenchant humor. These elements are captured believably

by its two fine actors, Edie Falco and Brenda Blethyn.

In this current revival, the eloquence and honesty of this

dramatization of a woman’s final hours before suicide is not

compromised by two performances that resonate singly and together

quite differently from those given by the actors in the original

Broadway production, Kathy Bates and Anne Pitoniak.

Ever since her husband walked out on her, Jessie Cates (Falco) has

been living with Thelma (Blethyn), her widowed mother in their simple

home somewhere in rural America. Jessie is an exceedingly plain and

compulsively unmotivated woman with a past history of epileptic fits

that have been carefully played down by her well-meaning mother.

The sheer boredom and redundancy of Jessie’s uneventful daily life,

rather than any abject despondency or self hate, appear to be the

motivation behind her coolly composed statement to her mother, "I’m

going to kill myself."

Thelma, a simple self-centered woman comfortably resigned to the

rituals of TV watching, fixing hot chocolate, and engaging in gossipy

small talk, is startled and stupefied by this announcement from her

otherwise remarkably predictable daughter.

Jessie has been silently "waiting until she felt good enough to

attempt suicide." Thelma’s disbelief eventually turns to fearful

resignation when Jessie calmly presents her with mundane lists of

instructions she has methodically prepared on how to run the washing

machine, and when the milkman and garbage men arrive. These petty

reminders are a prelude to highly charged discourses between mother

and daughter who, in tense counterpoint, reveal concealed truths and

anxieties about their failed marriages and lives.

In "’night, Mother," Norman doesn’t preach, condemn, or even justify

the act of suicide, but merely explores the possibility that an

extremely personal solution may result from rational and honest self

analysis. Thelma’s eventual recognition of Jessie’s decision takes on

perverse humor when she suggests, "Let me call the ambulance. You like

that one driver." Or, when she tries in a last ditch attempt at

rationale: "I don’t know what I’m here for, but I don’t think about

it."

Jessie’s contention that "the only reason to stay would be to keep you

company, and I’m not very good company," is finally acknowledged with

a resigned "no" by her mother who, in spite of everything, must face

tomorrow without guilt.

Michael Mayer has directed with the obligatory sensitivity and an

acute awareness of the need for total honesty on stage. There is never

a false move in Falco’s embodiment of a woman unresponsive to the

affirmations of life. Best known for work on the HBO series "The

Sopranos," Falco received acclaim on Broadway in "Side Man" and

"Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune," all very different roles

that attest to her ability to completely transform herself into the

very essence of her character.

Multi-award winning Britisher Blethyn, best known for her

Oscar-nominated role in "Secrets and Lies," does a super job of

varying her desperate attempts to thwart Jessie with outrageously

funny digressions. If she comes across as slightly abrasive, it only

validates her as an unwittingly smothering mother.

"’night, Mother" invites laughter through its emotionally painful

course, and delivers understanding through compassion. This, as it

brings heartfelt insight to one of the most tragic psychological

problems of our time. It appears that Norman’s play has been destined

for the long life that her Jessie could not bear to contemplate.

– Simon Saltzman

‘night, Mother, Royale Theater, 242 West 45th Street. For

tickets ($25

to $85). Call 212-239-6200.

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The Foreigner

We sometimes joke about how a deceased playwright is probably spinning

in his grave when his play is not done well. However, I suspect that

Larry Shue has a right to grin in his grave listening to the reaction

of people obviously pleased by this revival of "The Foreigner," the

play that earned him success just before his tragic death in a plane

crash in 1985. A considerable hit Off-Broadway, "The Foreigner" is no

less than an appropriate, if also predictable, vehicle for Matthew

Broderick.

About a self-described "shatteringly boring" young Britisher who seeks

out a weekend retreat at a fishing lodge (handsomely designed to

include the obligatory stag head by designer Anna Louizos) in Georgia,

"The Foreigner" shamelessly tickles our funny bone as it shamefully

indulges our least demanding dramatic needs.

So painfully insecure and fearful of human confrontation that he

pretends not to understand or speak a word of English, an unhappily

married proofreader at a science fiction magazine suddenly finds that

he is unwittingly in earshot of an inheritance swindle and some dirty

Ku Klux Klan doings. "The Foreigner," although sprinkled with some

peculiarly recognizable stock characters, is basically a star vehicle.

I doubt, however, if it is going to be remembered as Broderick’s best

vehicle. After all, what could possibly top "The Producers?"

Broderick continues to display a boyishly homespun comical facade, but

it is his natural ability as a mime and a mimic that keeps the play on

its farcical track. You’d be hard pressed not to laugh aloud as

Broderick babbles a blue streak in something akin to Pig European, as

he tells the story of Little Red Riding Hood. His graceful and

ingratiating performing style could be said to be an affectionate

homage to Charlie Chaplin.

Director Scott Schwartz does a fine job of bringing the best out of a

great group of farceurs. In one scene – a monkey see/monkey do

breakfast table vocabulary lesson – Charlie (Broderick) and Ellard, a

slightly retarded bricklayer (played by Kevin Cahoon with inspired

deficiencies) reaches a peak of hilarity. Francis Sternhagen as the

compulsively naive owner of the lodge; and Byron Jennings, as

Charlie’s friend and demolition expert, also rise above the occasion.

This is hardly one of the great comedies of the era, but there are

enough golden moments to make this a happy time in the theater.

– Simon Saltzman

The Foreigner, through January 16th, Laura Pels Theater,

111 West 46th Street. Tickets ($61.50 to $71.50), call 212-719-1300.


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