Larry Shue's 'The Foreigner' is a quirky little play about a painfully shy British man staying at a lodge with several strangers. Through the new persona he creates to cope with his social ineptness, Charlie gives new purpose to those he just met, and finds new purpose himself, as he gains their admiration and respect.
All the characters in the show have distinct, vital roles. They are the sort of roles actors covet.
Sunset Playhouse has rounded up a couple newcomers to their stage (Rick Berggreen and Dan Hargarten), as well as several community theater veterans, for this superior production. Under Brian Zelinski's direction the comedy is not forced or outrageous, but created through subtleties and timing from skilled actors.
In 'The Foreigner,' Staff Sergeant 'Froggy' LeSueur (Dan Hargarten) gets his British friend Charlie Baker (Phil Stepanski) settled into a lodge in Georgia for a few days for a respite from his philandering wife, who is dying. Charlie, a meek proofreader, doesn't want to talk to anyone because he finds himself boring. 'How does one acquire a personality?' he muses. So Froggy cooks up the idea that he is a foreigner and can't speak English. That way, no one at the lodge will bother him. But that's not what happens.
Betty (Joan End), the lodge owner, who's sweet and unworldly, is immediately taken by the foreigner and loves to dote on him. She tells the others, 'He don't speak no English, even when it's very loud.'
Others Charlie meets at the lodge speak freely since they believe he doesn't understand English. His ruse makes him privy to some personal conversations between Catherine (Deanna Strasse) and David (Rick Berggreen), who are planning to marry after she reveals she's pregnant, as well as a sinister plot being planned by David and Owen (Gene Schuldt) to have the lodge condemned, and then purchased for a song and turned into a Ku Klux Klan headquarters.
Also living at the lodge is Catherine's brother, Ellard (JJ Gatesman), a dim-witted but kind-hearted young man who has more to offer than anyone thinks.
Instead of being left alone, Charlie is bombarded by everyone. Catherine confides her deepest thoughts to Charlie, because all he does is listen. Owen, a white supremacist, taunts Charlie relentlessly for being foreign.
But it is sweet Ellard who brings out a playful side of Charlie over breakfast, in one of the show's several memorable scenes. It is a charming bit in which each character realizes hidden talents.
I've seen Stepanski in a number of shows in recent years and have found him really adept at comedy ('Noises Off,' 'Lend Me a Tenor'). He brings a real ease and likability to his characters, and his Charlie is spot on. There are several scenes in the show that really stand out and Stepanski executes them as well as I've seen. One is the scene in which he enacts a story in his native tongue (a hilarious mish-mash of a sort of eastern European language); another is his confrontation with Owen that Owen construes as voodoo, with Charlie intoning, 'Bees come down' in an eerie voice. I've seen those scenes done over-the-top, but much prefer the charming way Stepanski handles them, which is more in keeping with his character.
The rest of this ensemble cast also performs flawlessly. Hargarten's Froggy is jovial and plays off of Stepanski's character nicely. As Catherine, Strasse has a southern accent giving her headstrong character a sort of Scarlett O'Hara flavor.
End, who I really enjoyed in another successful Zelinski-directed play, 'Lend Me a Tenor' at Waukesha Civic Theatre, just melts into her role as the lodge owner. Her satisfaction at thinking she has a psychic connection with Charlie is delightful. She can barely contain herself when she tells Charlie, 'It's mysterious how I can read your brain thoughts' with her nicely done accent.
Gatesman has mastered the mannerisms and speech pattern of Ellard as he lopes around the stage, creating a most endearing character whose body language changes from stooped to straight as he gains confidence. Schuldt is pitch perfect with his gravelly, sinister Owen. His malicious grilling of Charlie in the early scenes really sets the tone for his important character.
Berggreen also does a fine job with his David character, cowering at his overbearing girlfriend and scheming with Owen on his plot to acquire the lodge.
'The Foreigner' has never disappointed with its ability to be funny and entertaining. But Sunset's version has met and exceeded those expectations with its expert cast and direction.
If you go
Who: Sunset Playhouse
What: 'The Foreigner'
When: Through March 20
Where:800 Elm Grove Road, Elm Grove
Tickets/information: (262) 782-4430, www.SunsetPlayhouse.com