When an artist dies needlessly young, it is not uncommon to hear the expression: well never know how great he might have been. Well, horsefeathers. In the case of Larry Shue, we know exactly how great he mightve been, if we only pay attention to the three full-length plays he managed to finish before his tragic death in a commuter plane crash. He would have been one of the finest American comic playwrights of all time. Actually, hes that now, but he was only beginning to harness his power when he died.
Among other things, he had managedtwice in a rowto breathe life into a form long thought dead and dated: the screwball comedy. With contemporary (though never trendy) settings, characters, attitudes and dialogue, he brought freshness, originality anduniquelya wry and very self-aware irony to the form.
The first of these two comedies, currently in revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company, is "The Foreigner" about Charlie Baker (Matthew Broderick), a mild mannered British fellow who feels at times as if he has no personality whatever. His former military colleague, Staff Sergeant "Froggy" LeSueur (Byron Jennings) takes Charlie for R&R to a fishing Lodge retreat in Georgia. Owned by a dear old lady, one Betty Meeks (Frances Sternhagen). Ol Betty hasnt had much thrill in her life, and less travel, and envies Froggys experience with foreigners. On a whim, while Charlie is out of the room, introductions not yet having been made, Froggy tells Betty that his companion is in fact a foreigner. Barely speaks English, odd habits of custom, the works. Betty is overjoyed.
When Froggy gets Charlie alone, Charlie is less so. Hes not the type to put on an elaborate charade, pretend to be something hes not even if it will give the old girl her dream come true.
Yet, through a chain of unexpected events, he quickly finds himself in a position to take on the unwanted part. Which he almost helplessly does. Whereupon, as an at-first silent but gradually "language-learning" observer, he becomes privy to secrets, plots, dreams and desires. And in the crunch finds he has the power to affect them. Whereupon he begins to grow into the part hes assumed.
Larry Shue has great fun here with archetypes: aside from those described above, theres a passle of Southern ones: The Southern Fried Girlfriend Whos Smarter Than She Thinks (Mary Catherine Garrison), her Goofball Younger Brother Who Isnt As Dumb As Others Think (Kevin Cahoon), her slick Reverend Boyfriend With A Bad Secret (Neal Huff) and The Boyfriends Redneck Associate (Lee Tergesen). They are wonderful foils for the increasingly "hapful" British heros sensitive and (comparatively) conservative bemusement.
Aside from the fresh juxtaposition of familiar types used in unfamiliar ways, Shue also provides the true you-cant-teach-this-stuff comedy geniuss gift for clocking everyday absurdity we might otherwise take for granted. Take this little bit from a sequence where Ellard, the slow-witted-but-sweet Southern brother, is teaching English to the "foreigner" by pointing out objects and giving their names.
"Lahyump," he says, pointing to a lamp.
"Lamp," says Charlie, with his bogus accent.
"No," Ellard corrects, breaking it down into syllables for Charlie to repeat. "Layump. Lah"
And gamely Charlie echoes, "Lahyump."
The notion of making the regional dipthong the characteristic of a fellow so literal minded as to believe its a conscious choice is so good its almost musical. More than that, even as it points out where Ellard is intellectually simple, it also demonstrates him to be something of a savant. Indeed, how could you spend your life hearing words like "lamp" pronounced "lahyump" and not believe them to consist of two distinct syllables? Its a fantastic bit of character writing, even more so because you never think about how brilliant it is (unless youre a critic and its your job), because its tossed off so easily and so sweetly.
The entire ensemble is excellent, with perhaps the standouts being Mr. Broderick and Mr. Cahoun, each of whom have their own brand of befuddlement and work toward a mutual center of divinely cockeyed understanding. And the play has been sharply directed by a director with whom I have rarely felt able to apply the word sharp, Scott Schwartz. Whether because hes getting better, or the play just speaks to him, or he cast it so well that he was able to let his actors wail and just keep things moving, I know not. But any of those scenarios is perfectly valid reason to give him credit for coming up with the goods. Knowing enough to let the play speak and otherwise stay out of the way is a gift too, one more directors might cultivate.
Larry Shues other major works, "The Nerd"another screwball comedyand "Wenceslas Square"a bittersweet political comedy-dramaare also overdue for revival. The Roundabout may be just the venue, so heres hoping.
For, as I say, the tragedy of Shues early passing wasnt his unknown potential, but rather the unwritten plays his brand of theatrical humanism made the world a better place. And it would be to mourn even yet if he hadnt left us laughing so well and so hard
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