written by Larry Shue
produced by The Winnipesaukee Playhouse
directed by Keith Weirich
The premise of Larry Shue's THE FOREIGNER is deceptively simple: Charlie, a shrinking-violet British science fiction magazine editor, is brought by his friend, Staff Sergeant Froggy LeSueur, to Betty Meeks' Fishing Lodge Resort in rural Georgia to recover from the serial infidelities of the wife he continues to adore, who now lies ill back in England.
Prostrated by his wife's slatternly exertions, coupled with her impending demise, Charlie has retreated into himself, finding it nearly impossible to even speak.
Ever the boon companion, Froggy arranges it so that Charlie doesn't have to talk to anyone during his stay, telling Lodge owner Betty and her guests that Charlie is a foreigner who doesn't speak a lick of English. As a consequence, everyone around Charlie conducts themselves as if he wasn't there, revealing not only their most closely-kept secrets, but setting the stage for an evening of nonstop, unbridled entertainment.
Director Keith Weirich spends the bulk of his professional life as the artistic director of The Peacock Players, the popular and award-winning youth theatre company based in Nashua, NH, so it's easy to see where the freshness and the sense of imagination which threads through THE FOREIGNER comes from.
Weirich has his actors play up all of the silly and ridiculous aspects of the situations which befall their characters in a way which accentuates the humor, but he also gives the cast focus, so that they remember why they're there. Weirich has his cast touch upon the more serious aspects of the plot without getting bogged down in them. As a result, the action is tight and disciplined, but generously seasoned with incidences of humor ranging from the cerebral to the slapstick.
THE FOREIGNER is a star vehicle for the actor taking on the role of Charlie Baker, and A. J. Ditty, who delighted audiences last year in the Winni P productions of NOISES OFF, SHERLOCK HOLMES, and THE 39 STEPS, consistently demonstrates why he's the man for the job.
An actor of slim and angular proportions, Ditty is perfect for, and in, the role; he first shows us Charlie as a nervously mordant schmuck caught up in a litany of personal woes, and it isn't until Act 1 is well underway that Ditty demonstrates his git for transformation, pulling Charlie up from the pit of despair in which he's mired and completely making him over.
As Charlie, Ditty takes the character on a physical and vocal train ride of epic speed and scope. At the beginning, he reluctantly goes along with the ruse Froggy sets up, quietly and politely miming his way through his first few hours at the Lodge when he comes in contact with the other guests and visitors there. As time passes, Ditty's Charlie embraces his new persona and ramps it up with exponentially increasing enthusiasm, throwing himself into it physically as well as mentally.
As the characters around him begin to reveal themselves and what they're really about, Charlie is transformed once again, from a childlike foreigner to a hero and a champion- not only to those with whom he comes into contact, but the bucolic and unspoiled lifestyle which they, and the Lodge, represent.
Ditty takes on the multifaceted role of Charlie with a consummate dexterity, it's a delight to watch him grow the part and bring Charlie into his own. Ditty's nervy mannerisms endow Charlie with an endearing, clownish physicality, and the mother tongue he makes up as an ersatz foreigner is a delicious panoply of mashups, borrowing liberally from Russian, French, German, Yiddish, a trove of onomatopoeia, Shakespearean soliloquies, even passages from the sci-fi stories he edits. The manner in which Ditty frames his dialogue it makes it sound like it's all off the top of his head, so it doesn't matter if it's scripted or improvised- it's all absurd and whimsical, and in perfect keeping with the play's ludicrous storyline.
Because he's almost never offstage, Ditty is charged with bringing an unflagging physical and vocal energy to the role without sending it off on unnecessary tangents. This he does, making Charlie fresher and more endearingly playful with every passing moment. Ditty doesn't merely resort to reaching into a grab-bag of actor tricks, but grounds Charlie by having him live in the moment, reacting to what the other actors give him and generously bouncing it back to them so that they, too, are as much a part of the unfolding moments as he himself is. It takes a superb actor to be able to both command and share the stage, and it's clear from his performance as Charlie that A. J. Ditty is that actor. Well done.
Conversely, 9-season Winni P veteran Adam Kee gets the least amount of stage time as Froggy LeSueur, Charlie's longtime pal, and the person responsible for bringing Charlie to the Lodge. Lest one worry that Froggy exists merely to be the show's occasional comic foil, never fear.
Kee, as is his modus operandi, thoroughly occupies every fiber of the character; his Froggy is expansive and convivial, blessed with a plummy British accent and a host of sweeping mannerisms, and yet his reactions to what happens around Charlie are hilariously understated. Kee is an expert at finding the perfect comedic level and timing it out, which means that every action he undertakes as his character only serves to punch up each moment which calls for Froggy's presence. Kee may not be inside the action for all that long, but when he is, you'll love every moment he's there.
William Vaughn turns in a brilliant performance as THE FOREIGNER's designated dullard, Ellard Simms. Vaughn gives us an Ellard content to languish in his designated role as a perennial underachiever because his contemporaries all consider him mentally slow at best, thus expecting nothing from him. However, when Ellard and Charlie meet, that's when Vaughn shows us the hidden gifts within Ellard, just waiting for the right moment to bloom:
Ellard recognizes in Charlie not merely a kindred spirit, but one who's been cast adrift in a hostile sea- one which Ellard knows well, because it's a sea he navigates every day. Consequently, Vaughn transforms Ellard, having him step outside of himself to take change of Charlie, and he does so masterfully. Ellard's objective becomes not only to help Charlie find his way, but also to give him the tools necessary to negotiate the world he occupies: Of course, the pairing results in a plethora of hilarious moments as the pair struggle to find common ground, but it's also poignant; for all of the humor that comes of his dealings with Charlie, Vaughn's evolution as Ellard is beautifully nuanced, and a treat to witness.
Winni P alum Donna Schilke provides a variety of broad comedic moments as the Lodge's eternally upbeat proprietress, Betty Meeks; Nicholas Wilder returns from the 2013 season to distinguish himself this time around as Owen Musser, a menacing racist with ties to the Ku Klux Klan. Nicole Soriano and John C Nagy III are spot on with their characterizations of Catherine, a former Southern debutante and David, her duplicitous fiance, respectively. Each actor gifts this ensemble with their presence, and each in his own way is a pleasure to watch.
Dan Daly's scenic design is a gem: the unit set consists of a great room with two smaller anterooms, all nestled within one another like a Russian doll, each room decorated in its own distinctive style- kitschy, cozy and welcoming. Lighting design by Becky Marsh provides not just atmosphere but a variety of effects such as lightning, headlights, even explosions. Lori McGinley's costumes faithfully recall early 1980s fashions, and Neil Pankhurst's sound design helps to underscore place and time as well as accentuate mood and theme.
While it may be argued that THE FOREIGNER is dated, hackneyed and easy on the eyes, ears and brain in terms of its plot and comedic sensibility, it's also a very sweet play that gently reminds us of the enduring duality of the human spirit: that from deceit comes truth, and out of despair, hope.
THE FOREIGNER also holds within itself a tiny little jewel of a secret: that the only way to be a better person is to put your own miseries to one side, gather up the courage to step outside of your comfort zone, and do whatever it takes to help others feel better about themselves.
That's really not such a bad premise for a play, is it? It's one of the many worthy ideas which the talented crew at the Winni Playhouse would have you take away from this production, and it's to their credit that they do.
There is one thing wrong with this show: it's not going to be on stage nearly long enough for all the people who would appreciate how The Winnipesaukee Playhouse distills a new vintage from an old bottle to benefit from seeing it. I strongly suggest that you catch THE FOREIGNER while it's still around.
THE FOREIGNER runs June 25- July 5 2014 at The Winnipesaukee Playhouse. Please visit their website for more information and tickets.