By Larry Shue
Directed by Scott Schwartz
Starring Matthew Broderick and Frances Sternhagen
Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre
Harold and Miriam Stienberg Center for Theatre
111 West 46th Street, NYC/ (212) 719-1300

Reviewed by David Spencer

When an artist dies needlessly young, it is not uncommon to hear the expression: we’ll never know how great he might have been. Well, horsefeathers. In the case of Larry Shue, we know exactly how great he might’ve 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, he’s that now, but he was only beginning to harness his power when he died.

Among other things, he had managed—twice in a row—to 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 and—uniquely—a 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 hasn’t had much thrill in her life, and less travel, and envies Froggy’s 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. He’s not the type to put on an elaborate charade, pretend to be something he’s 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 he’s assumed.

Larry Shue has great fun here with archetypes: aside from those described above, there’s a passle of Southern ones: The Southern Fried Girlfriend Who’s Smarter Than She Thinks (Mary Catherine Garrison), her Goofball Younger Brother Who Isn’t As Dumb As Others Think (Kevin Cahoon), her slick Reverend Boyfriend With A Bad Secret (Neal Huff) and The Boyfriend’s Redneck Associate (Lee Tergesen). They are wonderful foils for the increasingly "hapful" British hero’s sensitive and (comparatively) conservative bemusement.

Aside from the fresh juxtaposition of familiar types used in unfamiliar ways, Shue also provides the true you-can’t-teach-this-stuff comedy genius’s 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 it’s a conscious choice is so good it’s 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? It’s a fantastic bit of character writing, even more so because you never think about how brilliant it is (unless you’re a critic and it’s your job), because it’s 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 he’s 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 Shue’s other major works, "The Nerd"—another screwball comedy—and "Wenceslas Square"—a bittersweet political comedy-drama—are also overdue for revival. The Roundabout may be just the venue, so here’s hoping.

For, as I say, the tragedy of Shue’s early passing wasn’t 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 hadn’t left us laughing so well and so hard…


Go to David Spencer's Bio
Return to Home Page