What I learned. . .

So many people told me they didn’t want to see my production of The Foreigner, I began to get a little paranoid.  But it turned out it wasn’t really the production I directed that people didn’t want to see; it was the play itself.

True, The Foreigner has been done a lot.  And I’ll admit that when Fred Adams and Scott Phillips called to invite me to direct Larry Shue’s extraordinary comedy, I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the offer, though I was certainly grateful to be thought of – and ultimately, happy to be entrusted with the work.  I’d never seen The Foreigner; moreover, I’d never read it.  All I knew was its reputation: “funniest play ever written.”  (“Oh, thanks a lot,” I found myself repeating under my breath.)  But again, well-written material is well-written material, and there’s a very good reason the play has been produced as often and as successfully as it has: The Foreigner is an exceptional piece of craftsmanship.

What I didn’t know about the play was that it has tremendous heart.  That was the real lesson.  I’m not a natural farceur, which may have actually saved my neck on this particular project; I don’t instantly or automatically begin contriving “the bits” as I prepare to direct the play.  Rather, I rely on clues from the playwright, and tend to trust my casting instincts which, in this case, meant finding excellent comic actors for the roles – and believing that together we would find our way to the right degree and balance of comic elements in the work.

Chris Mixon was a natural for Charlie, and I couldn’t have been happier to have Jane Ridley and Bryan Humphrey as Betty and Froggy, respectively.  (It’s always nice to get to work with actors with whom you have established shorthand; makes the sort of trust you need in any rehearsal situation that more easily attainable, and in the case of The Foreigner, makes it that much easier to ask your actors to try outrageous things as you find your way to the center of the work.  I remember watching in amazement as Jane took every cheap idea I served up and made it her own. . .  made them work -- hilariously, as I recall. . .  I think she’s a high-wire artist of the first order and a true comic genius.)

My instincts told me to recommend Lloyd Mulvey, a young actor I’d worked with in the BFA actor training program at the University of Utah, for the role of Ellard. . .  Lloyd is unable to do anything but play the truth, so I knew that his characterization would evolve out of the honest pursuit of intention and objective, and that the comedy would come from within rather than be imposed from without.  Ditto, Marcella Sciotto, another actor I’d worked with when she was in training (at Webster University’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts BFA program).  And, I was delighted to work for the first time with Ted Deasy, an actor whose work – particularly in Stoppard’s Rough Crossing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I’d admired for years, and to be reunited with Erik Stein, a former PCPA student who had laid me in the aisles with his performance as Miles Gloriosus in a production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Pioneer Theatre Company, several years prior to our reunion at USF – revealing a side of Erik of which I’m not sure I’d previously been aware.  It was a happy clan, indeed.

What surprised me about the play is what surprised the people who went to the production unwillingly: there is so much heart, and a terrific message about prejudice and about judging those who are ‘different’ from us under the belly-laugh surface of the play, if you just trust the work to speak for itself.  Like so much fine playwriting, it simply doesn’t need our ‘help’ as much as we are sometimes compelled to feel.  Ultimately, I was grateful to have been given the opportunity to direct The Foreigner.  It was a great lesson in assuming nothing based on reputation. I grew as an artist and a craftsperson; I think I learned as much as did Larry Shue’s wonderful characters; most important, together, the cast and the production team gave audiences a side-splitting and moving couple of hours away from the routine of everyday life.  Sometimes that’s all we can – or should – ask of the theatre.

The Foreigner

Utah Shakespeare Festival

October, 2005

Lloyd Mulvey, Jane Ridley, Chris Mixon

“Thanks to a fine cast and a brilliant lead performance, Larry Shue’s The Foreigner – a mistaken-identity gag stretched to ridiculous extremes – is one of the funniest plays to grace the Utah Shakespearean Festival in years.

Bryan Humphrey is amusingly glib as the cheery Froggy LeSeur.  Jane Ridley is a hoot as the naïve, folksy Betty, and Lloyd Mulvey skillfully charts Ellard’s gleeful progression from scorned half-wit to miraculous “tutor.”  A wordless scene in which Charlie apes Ellard’s movements at the breakfast table is almost worth the ticket price alone.

“The star, however, is Chris Mixon, whose sad-sack Charlie blossoms into a witty raconteur before people who appreciate him for the first time in his life.  The play’s comic possibilities multiply in the second act as Charlie gradually “learns” English; when he entertains his new friends by pantomiming the Little Red Riding Hood story with manic gibberish, it’s a comic tour de force.

“Skillfully directed by Paul Barnes. . .  beneath its sometimes silly surface, the play makes insightful points about the assumptions we make about those who seem different from us.  Warm, witty and humane, Shue’s comedy is well worth your time.”

     Btandon Griggs

     The Salt Lake Tribune

“One of the late Larry Shue’s most popular comedies, The Foreigner provides not just plenty of laughs, but a sizeable portion of wonderful insights into human foibles.

“The central character is Charlie Baker (no, that’s not a military code), a painfully shy British proofreader who briefly escapes a disastrous marriage by spending a few days at a reomote Georgia hunting lodge.  He’s brought there by an old military buddy, demolitions expert Froggy Leseur, who concocts a wild scheme to protect Charlie from having to interat with others at the lodge – telling them that he’s a foreigner who neither speaks nor understands English.

“This fairly simple set-up paves the way for several hilarious – and insightful – scenes, when the others spill the beans about some rather dark and potentially disastrous secrets (thinking that Charlie has no idea what they’re divulging).

Skillfully directed by Paul Barnes, the relatively small cast delivers strong performances.

“Chris Mixon as a wonderfully expressive face.  He can say more with just a glance or a soulful look than a pageful of dialogue.  He turns Charlie Baker into a lovable chap who changes not only himself but those around him.

“Lloyd Mulvey also gives a knock-out performance as Ellard Simms, a somewhat slow-witted young man with some surprising ideas up his sleeve.  (While Charlie Baker is a good listener, Ellard is a mighty fine teacher.)

“Jane Ridley is terrific as Betty Meeks, the proprieter of the fishing lodge who is convinced that she and Charlie are on the same wavelength.

“Ted Deasy and Eric Stein are also very good as, respectively, the devious, deceitful Rev. Davd Marshall Lee and the newly appointed country inspector, Owen Musser, and Marcella Rose Sciotto is well-cast as Catherine Simms, Ellard’s older sister, who is betrothed to the Rev. Lee and heir to her late husband’s fortune.

The Foreigner tackles some heavy-duty issues – notably bigotry and the Ku Klux Klan – with amble humor along the way.

The finale is a blast.  Literally.”

     Ivan Lincoln

     The Desert News

“Playwright Larry Shue, who died tragically in a plane crash in 1985, must be smiling down from heaven at the Utah Shakespearean Festival’s production of The Foreigner.  It is a hilarious romp.

“It is hard to tell who steals the show more.  I could be Chris Mixon as Charlie Baker, whose wonderful facial expressions and “storytelling” is terrific.  Perhaps it’s Jane Ridley’s portrayal of Betty Meeks, whose life seems to be pure joy now that a “foreigner” has come to her lodge.  It could be Lloyd Mulvey as Ellard, whose innocent, child-like portrayal of excitement when he discovers he can do something worthwhile.

“However, it seems that the mixture of these three plus the additions of the ever-charming A. Bryan Humphrey as Froggy, Marcella Sciotto as Catherine, Ted Deasy as David, and the hilarious Erik Stein as Owen Musser (his opening of a coke bottle on his belt buckle is worth the price of admission) blend together to create and entertaining time at the theater.

“I’ve seen The Foreigner on numerous occasions and I can’t think of a time that I enjoyed it more.  If you hae to make a choice at what to see this fall at the Festival, my vote is for The Foreigner.  You won’t be disappointed.”

     Janet Leavitt