Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Santa Monica Repertory Theater at Miles Memorial Playhouse
Through May 20
Larry Shue is one of those playwrights who belongs in the “what might have been” column of theater history — you can’t even imagine what he might have done with the rest of his career if he hadn’t perished in a plane crash in 1985. Having written several hugely popular plays, which are still part of the mainstream rep canon today, Shue was poised to make his personal Broadway debut on the eve of his death. He had his greatest days ahead of him! What one grieves for when someone like this dies unexpectedly is the loss of promise, a loss harder to calculate than the value of what has been left behind. A new Shue play is something one can only wish for.
Over the decades, The Foreigner has become the stuff of innumerable high school, college, and community theater productions. And part of its appeal is that the text offers a supple frame that allows a talented cast and director to invest whatever detail and dimension they desire.
Director Sarah Gurfield’s mostly workmanlike production gamely attempts to add a contemporary gloss by focusing on the issues of immigration and xenophobia, as stoked by the Trump Administration’s miserable antics. And although I am not sure anyone would dispute the play’s anti-bigotry message, its amplification here serves to change the entire tone. It becomes less of a comedy and more of a pathological study of rage and tension, undercut by massive flaws in logic.
In The Foreigner, a pathologically shy Englishman named Charlie (Mike Niedzwieckie) takes a room at a rural hunting lodge in Georgia where he decides to pretend to be a non-English-speaking foreigner so as to avoid conversations that might make him nervous. Instead of being left alone, however, his presumed lack of English turns him into the ideal confidante and companion for many, and he becomes the repository of the whole household’s secrets. It isn’t long before he becomes embroiled in defeating the plans of an evil preacher (David Clayberg) and a bigoted thug (Troy Dunn, whose excessively wicked troll hits one of the play’s few notes of quirky black humor) to cheat the kindly landlady (Tanya White, engaging, but low energy) of her property so they can open a KKK camp on the land.
The show is surprisingly flat and peculiarly humorless. One senses that much of the comedy should arise from our watching Charlie’s reactions, which must be subtle as he needs to convey to the audience that he understands what the other characters are saying, while also feigning incomprehension to them. Here, though, there is much less than meets the eye, as Niedzwiecki’s antics and mugging are limited to fake smiles and an occasional wince while the other characters’ backs are turned. It’s a single joke that is only marginally funny on its own and, when extended the width and breadth of the play, makes for an increasingly wearisome production.
The line readings are indifferent as well: We sense the presence of opportunities to milk one-liners and craft amusing gags, but they are never taken, with the result that the piece takes on the underexplored feel of an early staged reading. I’m not entirely sure what would have salvaged this listless production, but it needs far more energy and imagination that it presents here.
Miles Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd, Santa Monica; Fri.- Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; through May 20. (844)-486-2844 or http://santamonicarep.org. Running time: two hours and 10 minutes with an intermission.