The first funny accents we hear are those of Charlie (Jim Wisinewski) and Froggy (Max Robinson). They are English accents, out of place in the rustic log-hewn surroundings of a rural Georgia fishing lodge. As sharply as these men are contrasted against their accommodations, the contrast between each other is even greater. Froggy is loud and gregarious, while Charlie spends his first several minutes onstage standing in a dripping, drab raincoat, unwilling to set down his luggage as it might force him to admit his presence in this place. He wears the expression of a man who is accustomed to unhappiness and resigned to his fate.
Charlie is shy, and he doesn’t want to talk to anyone. He wants to be left alone to wallow in his misery, so Froggy concocts on the fly, in the best farcical tradition, a story about Charlie being an exotic foreigner unable to understand a word of English, presuming that this will allow Charlie the unmolested rest he desires.
Instead, Charlie becomes the favored sounding board, pet and vessel of all manner of psychological projections of the lodge’s residents. As an Englishman, Charlie is considered boring, even to himself. As a foreigner, however, he is affable and charming. Wisinewski’s performance in this role-within-a-role is reminiscent in both speech and demeanor of Andy Kaufman’s Latka character from TV’s Taxi, and similarly endearing. Given the scripted similarities and the fact that the show’s original off-Broadway run closely coincided with Kaufman’s untimely death in 1984, Wisinewski’s performance can be better understood as an homage rather than outright thievery.
The performances are solid in general. What easily could have been one-note stereotypes are instead portrayed as well-rounded if not always sympathetic individuals. Jeremy Holm is particularly worthy of note as Owen Musser. His rolling gait and “Git-R-Done” drawl initially make him seem dismissible as an extended stereotype, but Holm slips eerily from this easy buffoonery into genuine malice and back again in time for a joke.
The Foreigner, then, isn’t all funny accents and misunderstandings. It also acts as a surprisingly apt study of the nature of sameness versus otherness, and our reactions when faced with this dichotomy. Froggy and Charlie are technically foreigners, but, in sharing our language and a hefty chunk of our cultural tradition, they are not foreign enough to inspire either curiosity or the xenophobic contempt from those so inclined. Charlie has to take on a fake language, contrived social customs and a blank faux-naïveté to elicit any kind of response—good or bad.
It is when the show treads into this exploration of xenophobia that it runs into trouble. The setting of the rural American South serves not only to add to the accent parade but also provides fertile ground for the dark turn the show takes in the final act. Now, I agree that art in general and theater in particular should address serious social issues and also that a comedy like The Foreigner shouldn’t necessarily be relegated to pure mindless escapism. However, without getting into spoiler specifics, the show experiences an abrupt shift in tone toward the end, which then just gets muddled as the original farce surfaces again. What could have been handled with satire get the ham-fisted treatment instead.
Disappointed as I was with this final twist, it didn’t make the rest of the show any less funny. The laughs were real as was the sentiment. They just didn’t belong in the same play.
THE FOREIGNER @ Pioneer Theatre Company, 300 S. 1400 East, Dec. 7-22. 581-6961, PioneerTheatre.org