by Larry Shue
Produced by Olney Theatre Center
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Olney Stage is one of the best theaters in Washington. During this year, I’ve been to three outstanding productions there. So let me come right to the point. After seeing The Foreigner last night at Olney, I’ve still only seen three outstanding productions there.
It’s not that the Foreigner is a bad show. Part of it, in fact, is quite good. Olney’s production values remain high. There is a thunderstorm at the play’s outset which is so palpable you can smell as well as see the rain. Jarett Pisani once again proves himself one of the best young sound designers in Washington. Scenic designer James Kronzer creates a beautiful and convincing set. The performances are generally good, and one of them is outstanding. More on that later.
The problem is that director Stewart F. Lane has misconceived his production and thus miscast the play. Larry Shue’s story isn’t great art, but done properly it’s cute and amusing. Froggy LeSuer (Field Blauvelt) brings his friend Charlie Baker (J.J. Kaczynski) to a Georgia resort run by Betty Meeks (Rusty Clauss) for a well-deserved rest from Charlie’s sickly, promiscuous wife. Charlie is so pathologically shy that he literally can’t stand the thought of talking with a houseful of strangers. So Froggy makes up a cover story for him: he’s a foreigner – Froggy won’t say from where – who doesn’t speak a word of English. Thus made exotic, Charlie becomes an object of fascination, even veneration. More to the point, those around him speak freely, and Charlie gets an earful of some pretty rotten plans.
Among other infamy, the evildoers plan to cheat young Ellard Simms (Ben Shovlin) out of his inheritance. Ellard’s older sister Catherine (Lindsay Haynes) has been instructed in her father’s will to hold onto Ellard’s inheritance until he shows he has the wits to handle the money. Ellard is in fact a remarkably dim bulb, and the tricks which the bad guys play on him only serve to make him seem dimmer.
And here is the great error which diminishes this production. Lane has made a colossal mistake in casting Shovlin in this role. It’s not that he’s a bad actor. He’s a fine actor, and does his best to make the role make sense. But he looks at least thirty years old, and the lines which Shue puts in his mouth make him sound profoundly retarded. An adult who acts as Ellard does could never be expected to manage a large inheritance. What’s more, no bad guy worth his black hat would lift a finger to further disqualify him; it would be unnecessary to do so.
If Lane had cast an adolescent as Ellard, on the other hand, the audience could understand his loopy, childish observations as the struggling language of a confused man-child, who is slogging through sudden orphanhood, a sea of hormones, and his own limited education to come to peace with the world. Such an Ellard would have a fighting chance to win the audience’s sympathy, and the villain’s plot against him would be outrageous, instead of simply goofy.
Lane’s other casting mistake was to enlist the formidable Clauss as Betty Meeks. Clauss is an excellent actor in a small venue. She was superb in Solas Nua’s The Mai earlier this year. But her voice is swallowed up in Olney’s capacious stage, and she is forced to raise it to such a pitch that she loses modulation and, at times, dialect.
These miscastings make for a slow first Act. The second scene in particular was a graveyard for lost comic opportunity. Funny encounters come off lifelessly. An encounter between Charlie and Ellard, in which Charlie silently mimics everything Ellard does, seems interminable, and it’s easy to see why. Were Ellard still a kid, the scene would show him bringing out Charlie’s playful side. With Charlie and Ellard both adults, it simply seems foolish.
Things pick up considerably in the second Act, aided in part by some extraordinary stage tricks the nature of which I dasn’t tell you, for fear of giving away the plot. More than anything else, the second Act is aided by the marvelous performance of massive Delaney Williams, as the down-home Bigot-in-Chief, Owen Musser. Williams manages to be both fierce and ridiculous at the same time, and so in his brief time on stage personifies the entire history of the organization to which Musser belongs.
The Foreigner runs Tuesday through Sunday until October 22. Tuesdays and Sundays are at 7.30; all other shows at 8. In addition, there are Matinees on Saturdays, Sundays, and Thursday, October 19 at 2 p.m. No show October 10. Tickets are $34-44 with discounts for seniors and students. Order at http://www.olneytheatre.org/ or call the box office at 301.924.3400.