There’s a disclaimer of sorts in Jack Neary’s director’s note for The Foreigner, New Century Theatre’s season opener, which plays through this weekend in its temporary digs at PVPA, the area’s performing arts high school in South Hadley. In it, he acknowledges that Larry Shue’s popular comedy “can easily be interpreted as an incisive commentary on our current political climate,” but “Me, I just think it’s funny.”
Yes, certain aspects of the show ring more persistently these days than when it debuted in 1984. But to this theatergoer, that topical echo doesn’t distract from the play’s comical goings-on. In fact, as performed by an across-the-board excellent cast, it enriches them.
The Foreigner is a twist on the mistaken-identity farce, founded on a fruitfully preposterous premise. Charlie, a painfully shy Englishman, staying in a backwoods-Georgia hunting-lodge-cum-inn and catatonically afraid of having to converse with the other guests, pretends to be a native of an obscure Slavic country who doesn’t speak or understand a word of English. The current-events resonance comes from the locals’ response to the visitor. Where most of them see an adorably exotic curiosity, others find a symptom of the existential peril posed by outsiders to their “white, Christian” way of life.
The plot may be implausible fiction, but the play’s ethno-purist xenophobes are the real-life Ku Klux Klan. They include Owen Musser, a not-so-good ol’ boy played with a greasy growl by Rand Foerster, and the respectable Reverend Lee, a slick hypocrite in the Ted Cruz mold, given an oily charm by Scott Braidman.
The inn’s motherly proprietor is played to y’all-c’mon-in perfection by Ellen Barry. She’s totally accepting of someone who’s “different,” and that includes eager, affable, slightly retarded Ellard (a delightful Christopher Michael Rojas), who ultimately exceeds the others’ expectations.
Ellard’s sister Catherine (Sandra Blaney, vacuous and vivacious in a succession of Nancy Horn’s lurid costumes) is beautiful, shallow, and of course blonde, and engaged to Rev. Lee. Froggy, the English army sergeant who deposits Charlie at the inn before heading off for maneuvers (don’t even ask) is played by James Emery with Cockney panache.
The play revolves around Charlie, and B. Brian Argotsinger gives it a delicious twirl. The guy’s timid journey from saucer-eyed terror at the prospect of chatting with strangers to not only accepting but embracing his new persona is enchanting and hilarious.
Daniel D. Rist’s rustic lodge setting is a vision of pine-paneled warmth and trophy wildlife, and Matthew Cowan’s lighting produces some nifty storm and explosion effects. The performance takes a while to find its pace, but soon the laughs start coming and the comedy, carried on its newly relevant undercurrent, sparkles.
Art as Activism
If The Foreigner overlays topicality with farce, Jimmy & Lorraine underlines it with history. Talvin Wilks’ scrapbook drama opened the KO Festival of Performance last weekend, kicking off a diverse five-week season clustered around the theme “Tactics for Trying Times.” The playwright describes it as a “dramatic reflection” and “a type of mashup,” culled from the writings of two great African-American artist/activists: James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry.
The piece, framed by a sequence of intimate chats fueled by cigarettes and whiskey, explores both their political and personal lives, as outspoken agitators for racial equality and dignity as well as gay artists in pre-Stonewall America.
It begins in the 1950s, with Baldwin’s transgressive (for its time) novel Giovanni’s Room, about a homosexual affair in Paris, and Hansberry’s boundary-breaking Broadway hit A Raisin in the Sun – a black woman storming the Great White Way.
At its core is the legendary 1963 meeting known as The Summit, when a roomful of African-American leaders gave Attorney General Robert Kennedy an earful, challenging him to make civil rights a presidential priority. The multi-voiced fugue of shifting perspectives is a brilliant reconstruction of that electrifying moment in which black aspirations, frustrations and rage spoke truth to power – and then, in some cases, retracted it.
Jimmy & Lorraine was developed by Hartford’s HartBeat Ensemble and performed at KO by an exhilarating trio: Chinaza Uche and Vanessa Butler in the title roles, and Neal Moeller, who plays everyone from Hansberry’s husband to Baldwin’s lovers to Norman Mailer. In the postshow talkback he described his multitasking role as “the token white guy,” pointing out what a rarity that is on the American stage.
Next week at KO, Sara Juli’s Tense Vagina explores a variety of tactics for the “trying times” of new motherhood, which range from incontinence to loneliness (there’s free childcare at the Sunday performance). Following that, on July 22, KO’s annual Story Slam invites community members to perform their own true trying-times stories.
Chris Rohmann is at StageStruck@crocker.com and valleyadvocate.com/author/chris-rohmann.
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