human comedy: Palmer and Sparks in BTFs The Foreigner..
By Ralph Hammann
By Larry Shue, directed
by Scott Schwartz
Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through Aug.
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.
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
By Alfred Uhry, directed
by Christopher Ashley
Williamstown Theatre Festival, closed
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
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
Or maybe not. I estimated that there were more than 3,200
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.
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.
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.
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
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