There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Larry Shue’s scripts haven’t aged gracefully in the two decades since a plane crash cut his theatrical career short: What caught the fancy of theatergoers in an age of sincerity fails to resonate in this era of irony. There’s no denying that Shue’s approach was very different from the randy romps that found favor in London’s West End in the early ’80s; with The Foreigner and its similarly styled predecessor The Nerd, Shue shunned the predictable rhythms of farce and spread out the remaining components over straightforward, linear narratives. Still, there’s something particularly appealing and mechanical about the way a typical farce elicits a Pavlovian response from its audience. You don’t have to work to find the humor in (to borrow the main conceit of The Foreigner) a Ku Klux Klan siege on a fishing lodge—which is why a brisk vaudeville routine between the play’s title character and his slow-witted friend over a plate of eggs is exponentially funnier than anything that follows intermission. Shue was clearly too headstrong to resort to cheapness with The Foreigner, but he never gets around to exploring the potential of a largely mute and sexless character who adopts a foreign persona to avoid interaction with the hotel’s other guests. In the hands of, say, Molière, this might’ve been a concept for the ages. With The Foreigner, it’s just a giant albatross strung around the lead actor’s neck. Still, resourceful actors always find ways to breathe new life into old tricks, and JJ Kaczynski’s performance as painfully shy British interloper Charlie Baker is no exception. Kaczynski’s genial turn imagines Baker as a Chauncey Gardiner/Leonard Zelig cipher, a composite of the character traits the small-town rubes at the lodge choose to assign to him “piece by piece.” James Kronzer’s two-tiered set keeps a watchful eye on verisimilitude, and there’s a wonderful attention to detail throughout—for instance, a prop newspaper whose headline is referenced within the show itself. Director Stewart F. Lane seems to be working to create an environment that appears as real and vital as possible in order to counteract the play’s less credible moments. Lane’s solution is to present The Foreigner as a museum piece—literally: The author bio in the program trumpets the inclusion of Shue’s next work in an “upcoming” collection titled Best Plays of 1987–1988. Unfortunately, the puzzle of how to make The Foreigner speak to modern audiences remains unsolved with Olney Theatre Center’s production. Certainly, there’s some clever material to play with in the script, especially as Shue sloughs off some of the remaining conventions of farce in the second act to make an overt stab at topicality. And since all of the issues he outlined in 1984 (xenophobia, the rise of the Christian right, white supremacy) remain relevant in 2006, all that’s really needed is context, especially since the title character’s “nationality” isn’t ever explicitly mentioned. But if you’re not going to bother updating references, there’s not much point in pulling a show like The Foreigner out of the cultural dustbin—that’s why we have Noises Off and, say, Molière.—Nick Green