Before going to see a performance of “The Foreigner” at the Milwaukee Rep Theater, I was looking forward to a welcome distraction from recent events.
The only thing I really knew about the play was that it involved a man getting caught in a sticky situation in which he was forced or compelled to pretend he was from another country. I also knew that my boyfriend had seen it when he was a kid and thought it was very funny. This was, in fact, why we had decided it would be a good idea to go to it with his parents.
A couple facts that I somehow missed about the “The Foreigner” before seeing it are as follows:
- It’s a play that Milwaukee can claim some ownership of, as it was originally written by Larry Shue for The Rep, where it premiered 33 years ago before being performed off-Broadway and eventually becoming well-known enough to feature Matthew Broderick in a production.
- It includes (a fictional version of) the KKK, meaning guys onstage in full klansman regalia.
“The Foreigner” is, unequivocally, a comedy—and laughs are what it delivers best. It is, however, hard to take a comedy that gets some of its laughs from thwarted racism and xenophobia at face value in today’s political climate. Fortunately, this admittedly very silly play—while a bit dated-seeming and not at all cool—ultimately holds up to modern social scrutiny despite its classically simplistic storyline.
The first scene opens in a fishing lodge in Georgia (the state, not the country), where a British military man called “Froggy” drops in with his friend Charlie. Charlie is shy and feeling stressed out at the idea of having to meet or talk to anyone new, so Froggy comes up with the brilliant idea of telling the owner of the lodge—an older woman enamored of the very notion of faraway lands—that Charlie is a foreigner who speaks no English.
Charlie balks at the idea at first, but after Froggy leaves him alone at the lodge for the weekend, he happens to overhear a private conversation between a minister and his fiancée. Having failed to reveal his presence to the couple within an acceptable timeframe and in an acceptable manner, Charlie finds that the only acceptable option left to him is to play along with the role Froggy has set up for him and to act as though he couldn’t possibly have understood what was said in front of him.
Much of the humor in “The Foreigner” is based around the human desire to escape and subvert social conventions even while clinging to them for comfort. Because Charlie wants to avoid certain conventions, he finds himself trapped in others, but he soon discovers that he prefers the role of the polite, mysterious foreigner to that of the meek Englishman. As soon as he’s not expected to say anything, he’s seized by the desire to communicate, an impulse that results in him enthusiastically “learning” English from the minister’s fiancée’s younger brother and eventually “teaching” an entirely fictional language to the other residents of the lodge.
Conflict comes in the form of Owen, a local man who has connections to the Klan and makes it clear to Charlie (though he has no idea how clear) that he doesn’t care for those who are not so local. Owen and the minister are scheming to buy the lodge, a plan that’s contingent on Catherine, the minister’s fiancée, deciding not to bestow part of her family inheritance upon her dim-witted brother—a decision hinging on the degree of intelligence he shows. Unfortunately for them, the speed at which Charlie seems to be picking up English suggests to Catherine that her brother—Charlie’s “teacher”—may not be as stupid as everyone seems to think.
“The Foreigner” may risk making light of the real hardship and dangers of being a foreigner in a darkly nationalistic society, but in the end, it’s about mocking white Americans’ own perceptions of foreigners. The main feature of the work that could be seen as insensitive in a modern context is that Charlie’s ridiculous linguistic fabrications take on a generally Slavic tone. Even this, though, seems to play somewhat into the Cold War mechanics of modern history and the American perception of what a generic “foreigner” might look and speak like.
Many of the best parts of “The Foreigner” are the most absurd and singular, such as Charlie’s attempts to frighten Owen with dark, nonsensical phrases like “bees come down.” Other humor veers more towards social commentary and is funny for what it reveals about perceptions and conventions. In one scene, Charlie and Ellard, Catherine’s brother, mirror one another’s actions as they eat breakfast. At one point, Ellard puts his glass on his head in imitation of Charlie. Betty, the owner, comes in and lectures Ellard, insisting that it’s all right if Charlie wants to put a glass on his head, because that’s obviously just what they do where he’s from—but that when Ellard does it, it looks like he’s making fun of Charlie.
I imagine that one of the biggest challenges for the cast is to commit to somewhat one-dimensional roles while still leaving room for the intended warmth to come through. Even Owen (played by Eric Parks), by far the most menacing character, needs to have a kind of temporary, blunt vulnerability in order for some of the humor to work. The small cast is successful at this overall, evidenced to me mostly by the fact that I didn’t find myself thinking about how well they were doing at any time.
Matt Zambrano, who plays Charlie, brings forth the awkward Englishman and crowd-pleasing Otherman with equal vigor. It’s believable that Charlie the Englishman would play Charlie the foreigner the way that he does, and the audience has the treat of seeing that this undertaking is relatively easy for him: Charlie is naturally an odd, quirky little man and he simply substitutes one set of quirks for another.
I do think it might be a good idea for theaters showing this play to include a note somewhere about a Klan appearance for the same reason that a modern performance of “King Lear” involving machine guns and black tactical suits—which I saw last summer at the American Players Theatre and which coincidentally starred several of the same actors (Eric Parks, Cristina Panfilio, Marcus Truschinski)—maybe should merit a quick mention. After all, these are staged depictions of the face of real-life violence that continues to haunt and traumatize both directly and indirectly.
However, I disagree with opinions I’ve read suggesting either that those who are “sensitive” about certain issues should necessarily avoid this play or that theaters should include a statement about the fact that they aren’t promoting the Klan’s activities and are on the right side of the social conflicts presented. It’s pretty abundantly clear what side the play and anyone who chooses to participate in its production is on, and social sensitivity, which is a good thing, pairs well with a good sense of humor in this work.
I did notice that there were times when the theater got very quiet, notably when there were explicit or implied threats of physical violence, and I thought that was healthy. There isn’t any rule stating that a dramatic work can’t be both goofy and sobering. “The Foreigner” is not deep in the realm of characterization or plot, and aside from the question of tolerance it’s largely amoral, but it still has its profound moments and is aware of the cultural nuances it’s exploiting for humor.
The one joke that’s left at the bottom when all other hilarity is drained, a powerful dreg, is that Charlie is a foreigner. He’s a British man in the American South, surrounded by people whose well-fostered prejudices, goodwill, egotism and naïveté bring him unprecedented joy, fear and fulfillment.
One of the strongest comedic angles in “The Foreigner” is that of (white) America in a vacuum, which is really appropriate because America has always sort of existed in a vacuum, able and ready to react to foreign invasions without fully experiencing them. The flipside of this is the innocent-verging-on-needy love Americans sometimes have for cross-cultural understanding and acceptance, which risks oversimplification and fetishization but also sort of contributes to making our country work…when it does.
We’re living in an absurd time, and laughing at our own absurdities to remind ourselves they exist has never been more appropriate. Shue’s play may provide both a welcome distraction from current politics and an educational reminder of the better aspects of humanity we have at our disposal.
“The Foreigner” is playing at the Rep through Dec. 18th.