Blazny blit hitski. Oh sorry, don’t understand? Well, translated that means “The Foreigner is a hit!” Bay Theater’s second show of the season is Larry Shue’s hilarious comedy, The Foreigner, and all you need is a sense of humor, not a linguistic degree, to appreciate it. Bay Theatre has invited Vincent Lancisi, Artistic Director of Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre, to direct this welcome heart-warming respite from the cold.
Charlie Baker (Bill Largess) is a depressed husband whose wife Mary is seriously ill in the hospital and he needs to get away. His friend, Froggie LeSeuer (Britton Herring), takes him to the backwoods Georgian retreat owned by Betty Meeks (Rena Cherry Brown), for some R&R. But since Charlie doesn’t want to speak to anyone, Froggie tells Betty that Charlie is a foreigner who doesn’t speak English so no one should speak to him as it embarrasses him not to understand. Betty tells the other guests: Reverend David Marshall Lee (Peter Wray), his fiancée Catherine Simms (Annie Grier) and her somewhat dimwitted brother, Ellard Simms (Sean McComas). Instead of leaving him alone, the others use his apparent lack of understanding as a sympathic shoulder to cry on or ear to talk to and he becomes a friend and confidante. But it turns out that the Reverend is up to some questionable business with the help of local red neck villain, Owen Musser (Stephen Patrick Martin). In just two days, Charlie brightens up the lives of Betty, Catherine and Ellard while dampening David and Owen’s plans, culminating in a hilarious climax and heart-warming ending.
Bay Theatre has lured some wonderful talent to Annapolis, which some might think of as off the beaten track between Washington and Baltimore. A show like this needs to have a good physical comic at the core as Charlie; and they’ve found one. While Largess is funny with his spoken acting, it is with his facial expressions and physical comedy where he truly shines. Largess starts Charlie off as rather blandly and slowly crescendos over the course of the play to the Act II climax. Each scene, you think that he has peaked, but he still manages to find another gear in the next one.
Herring’s Froggie is a true charismatic foreigner who immediately warms the room, charming Betty with his presence. McComas’ Ellard is winsome and childlike. He starts out sullen which make hims seem more simple than he actually is. But with Charlie’s help, he gains confidence and blossoms. McComas plays both the self-conscious and confident Ellard with comedic conviction and we cheer as he grows. Cherry Brown plays older characters well as also shown in Bay Theatre’s Gin Game. She makes Betty a quintessential country grandmother in need of a family to mother (and maybe bully a little) and finds them in her boarding house. She makes the most of some of Shue’s best situational comedy such as yelling to make sure the foreigner who speaks no English can understand.
Although outwardly attractive, Grier’s Catherine is somewhat lacking in inner beauty as she starts out a petulant and shallow nag. Under Charlie’s influence, Grier ably transforms Catherine to match the personality to the person. Wray has a difficult task of playing the charismatic David to the boarding house residents while showing his darker, more nefarious side to Owen. And Martin portrays the menacing bumpkin Owen well enough to make you wonder if he grew up in the boonies.
I had an image of this production as produced in 2006 on Olney’s massive mainstage and wondered how Bay Theatre would be able to fit all the requisite special effects of a normally two-story stage into their intimate space. Set designer Ken Sheats amazed me with his creativity in designing a one story set in about one-quarter (or less!) the size of Olney’s stage. He was able to cleverly and economically recreate two ordinarily space-consuming special effects in the compact theater. Add to that a quaint and kitschy set that managed to clash with itself and it just set the right tone for the show. Lancisi does a magnificent job in keeping the show moving and adding many little details and touches that just accentuate the comedy of the script. He managed to fit the extremely physical blocking into the tight space without sacrificing effect.
Bay Theater once again proves that although it is small in size, it is big on quality. Head on out to Annapolis for a gut-busting, chortle-inducing dose of non-holiday cheer. You won’t regret it.
By Larry Shue
Directed by Vincent Lancisi
Produced by Bay Theatre
Reviewed by Ted Ying