Stage & Dance

Review: 'The Foreigner' speaks in a universal language: laughter

VERSAILLES — Playwright Larry Shue's comedy The Foreigner opens with a simple premise: a man with a problem.

Charlie Baker is unbearably dull. Even his own wife must think so. His lack of romantic flair drove her into the arms of not one but 23 other men.

Charlie also is terrified of people. When he arrives for three days at a remote Georgia cabin, he pretends to be a foreigner who speaks no English to spare himself any social interaction. His plan immediately backfires: All the cabin's guests become interested in Charlie's foreign ways, even spilling secrets to him that they think he cannot understand.

Before long, boring old Charlie comedically embraces the freedom and anonymity of his role as outsider, makes lasting friendships, and, after a series of hilarious detours, eventually saves the day.

Shue's offbeat Southern romp, directed by Patti Heying, is perfect fare for The Woodford Theatre.

Despite a slew of quirky characters and circumstances, Heying keeps her comedy focused and grounded in the possible, steering clear of downright goofball zaniness.

The jokes fly and satisfy on the surface, but there is something textured about Heying's vision that sets it apart from many one-dimensional comedies. Carefully choreographed pacing combined with Beth Kirchner's cozy log cabin set design weaves a sense of slow, Southern life into the show's fabric. Cleverly plotted plays on language twist and propel the plot forward, sideways and back again.

Perhaps what really makes the show tick, though, is its ensemble cast.

Carmen Geraci deserves particular praise for his performance in the lead role. With few pre-prescribed lines (the ones that make sense anyhow) Geraci faces the challenge of making up a "foreign" language on the fly. If you listen closely, you can hear bits of old sayings and French speeches in Charlie's made-up tongue. Geraci's best attribute, though, is that he traces the trajectory of his character's transformation with aplomb, underscoring the gentle message behind the play's comedy: that getting outside of yourself and taking emotional risks bring you closer to others and make you anything but dull.

The cast reaches its zenith in the second act, when ensemble scenes like Charlie's raucous retelling of a story from his native land highlight each actor's strengths. Martha Campbell is the perfect Mamaw type as cabin proprietor and sweet old Southern lady Betty Meeks. Her authentic accent matches her squat but determined old-lady walk, and her loud assaults of extreme friendliness on Charlie are one of the show's repeat laugh-getters. Garrett Walters is a surprise delight as Ellard Simms, the young, not-too-bright country boy whose continued English lessons with Charlie form some of the play's best moments of comedy.

By the end of the show, it feels as if the audience and the cast are in on one big inside joke that has been developed through the evening. Cozy and inviting, The Foreigner is a warm comedy for a cold February evening.