With the new year’s start full of upheaval and disaster, it feels as if we’re desperately trying to find a few moments of lightness, to laugh, open and loudly, free and clear. Bristol Riverside Theater’s current production of Larry Shue’s “The Foreigner,” playing now through Sunday, February 14, accomplishes the small miracle of both being deliciously escapist while also touching on something very real and important on the nature of self-invention and acceptance. I laughed so hard the muscles in my face still hurt just a little bit, even as its warmth and generosity of spirit stay with me. Thanks, BRT. I needed that.
The titular foreigner is Englishman Charlie Baker (Kraig Swartz), introduced and self-defined as “the world’s dullest man,” stuck in an unassuming life where he proofreads a science fiction magazine and tends to his ailing, adulturous, and contemptuous wife. His old military buddy, Froggy (David Edwards), in a fit of empathy, steals Charlie away for a weekend vacation at a run-down hunting lodge in rural Georgia. To protect the frightfully shy Charlie, Froggy tells the other guests that he’s from an indeterminate foreign land and speaks no English, in hopes they’ll leave him at peace to relax a little bit. All of this, of course, is setup; it’s the first few pieces of the well-crafted, directed, and performed Rube Goldberg-esque machine, presented as a delightful comedy that rewards its audience for every small detail and clue picked up on, in the deployment of those plot points later on.
Charlie’s foreign-based feigned silence is designed to prevent folks from conversing with him — the fun begins as the opposite occurs, and the other personalities of the lodge converge on the one person they can spill their secrets to, without fear of reprisals or back-talk. Lodge owner Betty (Susan Moses) immediately takes a shine to the silent young man, attempting a connection via megawatt-loud speaking and interpretive-dance pantomime. She’s a frenetic wonder to behold, sort of like Granny from the Beverly Hillbillies as channeled through Martha Graham, and she chalks her instant rapport with Charlie up to newfound extrasensory gifts. All of a sudden, she has a hint of the exotic adventure she’s longed for her whole life, in this “foreign” young man.
And in that connection, we find the magic of BRT’s “The Foreigner”; it’s the story of how, at any moment in our lives, we can choose to change, and who we are and what we offer those around us now can be immeasurably more important than who we were. BRT artistic director Keith Baker has wisely and intuitively crafted this core point into the relationships Charlie forges in this new persona. Fellow lodger Catherine (the delightful Jennie Eisenhower) and her brother, Ellard (Michael Barra), both discover purpose via their foreign visitor. Pregnant-out-of-wedlock Catherine finds it easy to spill her innermost secrets to the man who (she thinks) can’t understand a word, and sweet, simple Ellard realizes his knack for teaching Charlie English in a matter of days (a surprisingly manageable task when your pupil is secretly a native speaker!).
Over the course of a weekend, browbeaten and boring Charlie transforms into the affable, dynamic heart and soul of this rag-tag group of misfits at the lodge. And watching this transformation is like unwrapping a delicately packaged present; in Act II, Ellard’s demonstrative English lesson gives way to a storytelling session in which Charlie bursts into jubilant and highly physical retelling of Little Red Riding Hood in his (improvised) “native tongue.” Swartz is adorable, energetic, and completely committed to Charlie’s transformation, and it’s a real gem of a moment in a play full of highlights. It’s somewhere around here that you realize how utterly taken you are with Charlie and his new friends, and how little who he used to be matters. The fiction of Charlie the Foreigner is so much more potent than the truth of plain Charlie Baker, and, in becoming what these people need, his new persona becomes a terrific, joyous reality.
The real conflict of the story involves Catherine’s boyfriend, David (Tom Tansey), a silver-tongued Methodist minister with large ambitions and his eyes on her bank account, and his flunky, Owen (brilliantly played with meatheaded charm by John Jezior), intends to be sheriff one day. Both of them quickly learn to dislike Charlie, and neither one of them is what they appear (but that would be telling…). But that, again, hits upon the theme of this play — we all have fictions we live and live with, and they can both raise us up and strip us down.
All of these characters and themes come crashing together in a late-in-act-two climax involving a series of little details from throughout the play and an ingenious slight-of-hand — you could feel the ripple of discovery and wonder as the audience caught on to what had actually happened against what seemed to have happened, and it’s one of those unspoilable, contagious moments of live theater. BRT’s production of “The Foreigner” rewards you again and again, both for paying attention to the details of the plot and for falling for these wonderfully drawn and vivid people with which we get to spend two hours.
“The Foreigner,” through Sunday, February 14, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, PA. $29 to $37. 215-785-0100 or www. brtstage.org.