Reviewed by Judy Richter
When a friend leaves a painfully shy man in the company of strangers, some strange things happen in Larry Shue's "The Foreigner," presented by San Jose Repertory Theatre. That shy man is passed off as a foreigner who neither speaks nor understands English while his friend, British Army man "Froggy" LeSueur (Steve Irish), goes to a U.S. base on a temporary assignment. "Froggy" leaves Charlie Baker (Louis Lotorto) at a fishing lodge owned by another friend, the widow Betty Meeks (Phoebe Elinor Moyer), in a rural area of Georgia in the early '80s.
The kindly Betty immediately dotes on Charlie, while others tend to ignore him at first, carrying on private conversations as if he weren't there. In the process, he learns some personal information as well as the details of a plot to take over the lodge for a Ku Klux Klan headquarters. He also discovers his own resourcefulness, using it to outwit the bad guys and improve the lives of the good guys. The good guys, besides Betty, are an attractive young tenant, Catherine Simms (Anna Bullard), and her not-too-bright brother, Ellard (Aaron Wilton). The bad guys are Catherine's smooth-talking fiance, the Rev. David Lee (Craig Marker), and his henchman, the scary, ignorant redneck Owen Musser (James Asher), county property inspector.
Shue sets up some hilarious situations, many of them involving Betty's naive eagerness to please and Ellard's slowness. Moyer and Wilton capture both characters well. The funniest moments come from Lotorto as Charlie, starting with his efforts to curl up and make himself invisible in his chair as Catherine and David have a very private conversation. Another hilarious scene comes as Charlie and Ellard eat breakfast. Charlie -- pretending not to know what to do with the utensils -- imitates Ellard. Ellard, in turn, teaches him their names in his Southern drawl, turning knife and fork into two- or three-syllable words with different vowels. The two also wind up with their juice glasses on their heads, much to Betty's consternation. Lotorto later has some tour-de-force moments as Charlie tells a story in what is supposed to be his language. There are just enough clues in the gobbledygook and motions to figure out that he's probably telling the tale of "Little Red Riding Hood."
Because the play incorporates some stereotypical behavior, such as Betty's repeated expressions of "Lawsy, lawsy" and her penchant to think Charlie will understand if she talks louder, a director and cast might be tempted to go overboard. Director Andrew Barnicle usually reins in the actors before they go too far, although Irish tends to strut too much and talk too loud as "Froggy," and Bullard becomes strident in her first scene, but she pulls back subsequently. Marker captures David's insincerity well, while Asher is appropriately repulsive as Owen.
Kent Dorsey's rough-hewn set recreates the flavor of a rustic fishing lodge, right down to the half-logs that form the stairway. Lighting designer Paulie Jenkins and sound designer Steve Schoenbeck pool their talents to create realistic effects such as the rain storm at the beginning and the Klan assault at the end. The costumes are by B Modern.
"The Foreigner" has become a staple for community theaters, but not so much that it wears out its welcome and its laughs in a professional production like this one.