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A human comedy: Palmer and Sparks in BTF’s The Foreigner..

Speak to Me
By Ralph Hammann

The Foreigner
By Larry Shue, directed by Scott Schwartz

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through Aug. 31

The term “hilarious” is habitu-ally overused in reviews of comedies and farces that are at best amusing. Recently, one critic even used the term “beyond hilarious” (whatever that may be) for a mundane little show. I wonder what superlative this reviewer would attempt eclipsing to describe The Foreigner, Larry Shue’s comedy that set the benchmark for hilarity. Berkshire Theatre Festival’s production of The Foreigner is hilarious, and honors Shue’s masterpiece not only in mining the abundant laughter but also in revealing its humanity.

Shue’s highly inventive concept places a severely shy Englishman, Charlie Baker (Peter Scolari), in the midst of the colorful and extremely provincial residents of a fishing lodge in Georgia. Charlie’s worst nightmare, having to talk to people (especially strangers), materializes when he realizes that his traveling companion and only friend, Sgt. Froggy LeSueur, must leave him at the lodge for three days. To allay Charlie’s anxiety, Froggy tells the lodge owner, Betty Meeks, not to speak to Charlie because he is a foreigner (country unspecified) who is embarrassed by his inability to speak English. The supposition that people will leave a foreigner alone couldn’t be further from reality, especially in Tilghman County, where Charlie is regarded with a fascination befitting an exotic celebrity.

Besides Betty, who believes she has a telepathic link with him, Charlie also is set upon by the beautiful-yet-edgy Catherine Simms; her dim-witted brother Ellard; her obsequious fiancé, the Rev. David Marshall Lee; and David’s redneck companion, Owen Musser. All manner of things are said in front of Charlie, who must feign ignorance while becoming privy to their secrets, which include a pregnancy, a large inheritance, a dastardly plot to take the lodge from Betty, and an invasion by the Ku Klux Klan.

Charlie’s transformation from coward to reluctant hero is one of the great character developments in comedy, and Scolari charts the course masterfully. Scolari has the appeal of such diminutive comic giants as Chaplin and Keaton: Not only does he make us laugh; he also makes us care, and ultimately, he makes us want to cheer the triumph of the little guy. Part of the difficulty in playing Charlie lies in the fact that the actor must speak in gibberish for the bulk of the play and then gradually turn the gibberish into meaning through his delivery and physical presence. Scolari handily meets the challenge and is sublime in what is among the funniest scenes of all time: an English lesson taught to Charlie by the barely articulate Ellard.

Among Shue’s accomplishments are the distinctness of each character and the fact that each is richly and believably comical. Each voice is real and written with the authority that marks a great playwright’s ability to get under his characters’ skins. Under Scott Schwartz’s spirited direction, the cast rises to the occasion and creates indelible comic portraits. The stage is never less than captivating.

As Ellard, Kevin Calhoon makes a virtue of naivete and makes stupidity stupefyingly entertaining and endearing. A beatific Betsy Palmer is delightfully whimsical in conveying Betty’s beguiled mental state. Sarah Avery, so good in last year’s This Is Our Youth, makes Catherine’s beauty much more than skin deep and subtly sheds her toughness to reveal an underlying vulnerability and compassion. Sounding as if he has just leapt out of an East London fog, Don Sparks is instantly and constantly amusing as Froggy. James Barbour’s David drips Southern charm and just enough oil to lubricate the play’s conflict. The role of Owen could easily emerge as two- dimensional and too disturbing to gibe with the play’s overall tone, but E.J. Carroll strikes a perfect balance as the revolting cretin.

Charlie’s intercession causes some characters to achieve their potentials, just as their acceptance of him allows him to realize his own capacity for communication and love. These transformations form the spine of this wonderful play. How the nasty characters are given poetic justice repeatedly tickles the funny bone.

Victor McQuiston’s crew has outdone itself in building Anna Louizos’ entertaining set. The set’s solidity helps ground the play’s zaniness, while its soaring beams provide ample space to vent the rising laughter. Special effects—lightning, thunder, crickets—all come off without a hitch.

You really don’t want to miss this testament to humanity, goodness, inventiveness and comic spirit. It is quite the most enjoyable play of the season.

What We Could Learn

For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again
By Michel Tremblay, directed by Carey Perloff

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass., closed Aug. 18

Without Walls
By Alfred Uhry, directed by Christopher Ashley

Williamstown Theatre Festival, closed Aug. 18

For the Pleasure of seeing her again’s winning introduction, adroitly delivered by Marco Barricelli as the playwright’s voice, slyly alludes to the sort of play we won’t be seeing. Theatergoers are assured that they are not going to have their mettle tested with the challenges of Beckett, Chekhov, Euripides, Shakespeare and the like. Instead, they are going to be treated to Michel Tremblay’s warm autobiographical account of his dead mother, whom he credits with, as the program has it, “instilling in him an appreciation for all things theatrical” and nurturing his creative impulses.

I’d have preferred the poetry of Euripides’ tale of a mother who commits infanticide to this overwritten claptrap that intimately recalls banalities of Tremblay’s relationship with his mother as if they were inherently interesting. And, given Olympia Dukakis as the babbling mother, that other Greek tragedy of matricide also would have sufficed.

Approximately 10 minutes are taken up with Tremblay’s account of his mother’s reaction to his throwing a chunk of ice under the wheels of a moving car and the consequent arrival of a policeman at their home. As in the recalled episodes that follow, the dialogue is circular, and the mother’s repetitions wear out one’s patience to the degree that one would like to smack Dukakis just as she continually smacks Barricelli.

Subsequent episodes deal with such riveting material as an aunt’s predilection for rare roast beef and Tremblay’s asking his mother where the imprisoned heroine of a novel she is reading makes “pooh.” If a child’s predilection toward defecation merits another 10 or so minutes of your time, Seeing Her Again might be your pleasure.

Mother and son also talk about the theater, and she wonders if actors ever wonder about the audience, or if the audience is a black hole in front of which actors perform. It’s an interesting idea that one of the aforementioned playwrights could handle; here, however, there is no resonance. To escape the tortures of their further bland musings, I tried to count the superbly rendered bricks on the vast brick wall of Ralph Funicello’s trick set, which depicts the rear wall of the theater before it opens into a surprising and refreshing fantasia of nature, whereupon a winged basket descends to carry mom to heaven.

As Dukakis is hauled upward in her basket, she likens it to being in a balloon—no doubt a hot air balloon. The play ends after 103 minutes, just before one becomes a similar basket case.

Or maybe not. I estimated that there were more than 3,200 bricks.

It’s a pity that Without Walls couldn’t have moved upstairs to the main stage for its final week. Audiences may not have flocked to it as they did to see Dukakis in For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again, but they would have been treated to a far better production.

Walls was the third and best in a set of plays on the Nikos Stage that explored the private lives of teachers. It was also the highlight of that stage’s rather mundane season.

As Morocco Hemphill, Joe Morton overcomes the clichés inherent in playing a gay drama teacher to deliver a nuanced performance of a complex individual who cares deeply, perhaps too deeply, about his students. As often happens in drama classes, the lessons encompass much more than the stage. At his school without walls, Morocco is preparing his students for the vast stage of the world.

While Morocco claims to share nothing of his personal life with his students, it is clear that the examples he uses to illustrate his lessons are drawn from his own life. And there is more than a passing resemblance between Morocco and the title character of the play he is directing at school, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Morocco enjoys a reputation for being one of the Dewey School’s most popular teachers and seems to be sailing easily through life until a confused young student, Anton McCormick (well played by Charlie Hofheimer), enters his class. Sensing in Morocco a savior as well as a mentor, Anton attaches himself to the teacher and breaks into his guarded private world.

Kelly Karbacz, as Anton’s girlfriend, Lexy Sheppard, is very believable throughout and navigates her way skillfully through a somewhat jarring bit of action that precipitates Morocco’s change in fortune. Aside from a few too many false starts at exiting, it is the only action in the play that doesn’t ring absolutely true to character.

Without Walls is about tearing down walls and the expression of pure love. It is written and performed with dignity and truthfulness that grip our attention.

—R.H.

Dead on Arrival

No Cure in Sight
By Robert Shanks, directed by Eric Peterson

Oldcastle Theatre Co., Bennington Center for the Arts, Bennington, Vt., through Sept. 1

The title says it all. Even if it were to receive a production less sloppy than Oldcastle’s, the play would be a terminal case.

Birthing a new play is a difficult task, but I am perplexed as to why anyone thought Shanks’ didactic diatribe resembled an actable, workable or even sensible script. I applaud Shanks’ sentiments against corporate, religious and political America, but his particular format should be a lecture instead of this ridiculous, unmoving and forgettable play.

Shanks presents us with the terminally ill David Sage (the name being an example of Shanks’ notion of subtlety), a Noble Prize-winner in physics, who is beset with crowds outside his Cambridge, Mass., home protesting his attacks on pseudo science, myth and religion. Most have been set on him by televangelist Billy B. Good.

Offering staunch support is David’s wife, Emma, who loves him completely and stands ready to protect and serve him, and to make cookies when the going really gets rough in the second act. David and Emma are supposedly highly intelligent, which doesn’t explain why they adapt so quickly and easily—despite a few minor and obligatory protestations—to the intrusion of two crackpots who, unbelievably, have eluded security and broken into the home. One is Farrah Jackson, who has changed her name to Mary Magdalene and wants to bring David to Jesus. The other is Timothy Andrew Thomas, a joke- spewing member of Heaven’s Gate.

We find ourselves stifling laughter with the subsequent arrival of the president of David’s college, Lucas Whitaker, who makes an unbelievably quick entrance after disembarking a helicopter. He is followed by Roger Molloch (get it?), a billionaire several times over with a lust for power, and Rev. Matt Robinson, another charismatic religious leader with intolerant Christian values. Later, there’s an automatic-weapon-toting nut, John Wayne Truax, who helps effect a totally unbelievable conclusion.

Derek Campbell’s Molloch is quite enjoyable in the vein of a ripe James Bond villain. As President Whitaker, however, Clayton LeBouef doesn’t suggest the accomplishments attributed to his character.

Sophia Garder does the best she can with an unplayable role. At least she exudes sex appeal, which is about the only thing that lands across the fourth wall of the ill-constructed set with its flapping bare side walls, unmasked joints and obviously phony books in the handsome central bookcase.

Similarly burdened as Timothy, Michael Lombardi seems a capable actor and does a nifty job of playing dead. Bill Tatum is dead-on as the not-to-be-revered reverend.

Erik Parillo doesn’t convincingly portray David’s illness, nor is he sufficiently assured while spouting theories, stating his beliefs or reading selections ad nauseam from the encyclopedia. At least he doesn’t annoy, as does Melissa Leo, who overacts horribly as Emma and declaims in a voice that has no connection with sincerity, spontaneity or reality. Oozing artificial charm and affection, she looks genuinely in love with her overblown stage presence, which seems appropriated from bad operas and cheap melodramas. Twenty-three years of marriage to this lady would kill anyone.

The beauty and sensuousness of the visuals created by Kleiser-Walczak are at odds with the tackiness that informs the bulk of the production. But while these video segments offer something to look forward to, they are not integral to the show.

Elsewhere, the slipshod values and inattentive direction undermine pretensions of professionalism: An onstage phone ring comes from offstage; a rock hurled through a widow sounds and looks more like a stuffed sock; David complains about hair loss, but he sports a full head of hair; people behind substantial-looking doors hear and/or see what is happening onstage; although there is an enormous crowd outside, we don’t hear them through the room’s three windows (but we can hear backstage noise); President Whitaker looks silly in an ill-fitting jacket, and at the very least requires cufflinks on his protruding cuffs. The most ludicrous, however, is saved for the end. A series of gunshots emanates, courtesy of blanks or caps, from an onstage automatic weapon. On the heels of this acceptable (if insufficiently loud) effect, a handgun is fired onstage with the obviously recorded sound effect coming conspicuously from backstage.

—R.H.


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