Blazny blazny! If you don’t understand that, it means you have yet to see the American Stage production of Larry Shue’s The Foreigner, a hilarious comedy with a cast who truly bring the characters to life on the two-story stage of the Raymond James Theatre in downtown St. Petersburg. American Stage has Matt Chiorini, an award-winning director from New York, at the helm. Chiorini has previously directed Much Ado About Nothing and Fully Committed for American Stage.
Charlie Baker (Chris Crawford) is a depressed husband whose wife Mary is seriously ill in the hospital and he needs to get away. His friend, Froggie LeSeuer (Matt Lunsford), takes him to the backwoods Georgian retreat owned by Betty Meeks (Elizabeth Dimon), for some R&R. Since Charlie doesn’t want to speak to anyone, Froggie tells Betty that Charlie is a foreigner who does not speak English, so no one should speak to him as it embarrasses him not to understand. Betty tells the other guests: Reverend David Marshall Lee (Gavin Hawk), his fiancée Catherine Simms (Natalie Symons) and her somewhat dimwitted brother, Ellard Simms (Greyson Lewis). Instead of leaving him alone, the others use his apparent lack of understanding as a sympathetic shoulder to cry on or ear to talk to and he becomes a friend and confidante. It turns out that the Reverend is up to some questionable business with the help of local redneck villain, Owen Musser (Dan Matisa). In just two days, Charlie brightens up the lives of Betty, Catherine and Ellard while dampening David and Owen’s plans, culminating in a hilarious climax and heart-warming ending.
With a fantastic script in hand, the actors have a lot to run with, and their comedic timing is spot-on. Chris Crawford’s facial expressions, along with a perfect dead-pan delivery of gibberish lines had the audience in stitches every scene. It was fascinating to watch how Charlie started out as a quiet, nervous little man, and blossomed into a hero by the end. Dimon’s portrayal of the kindly widow Meeks recalls memories of the perfect grandmother and has everyone rooting for her throughout the play. Lunsford’s Froggie manages to be charming and genuine as he worries over his friend and flirts with Betty.
Symons begins the play as the obviously attractive, but shallow and whining, bride-to-be, and transforms wonderfully by the final act, matching the personality to the beauty. Hawk plays the scheming villain masterfully, switching back and forth from charismatic preacher to plotting insurrectionist, sometimes between breaths. As his bumbling yet menacing sidekick, Owen, Matisa is one of those nemeses you love to hate.
Lewis’s Ellard often stole the show with a portrayal of a dim-witted country boy developing into a man with the help of his new friend. Crawford and Lewis have some of the wildest and hilarious scenes in the show, and they make great use of the beautiful set, which designer Tom Hansen created as a realistic wood lodge. The professionalism even extends to special effects for the rain in the show, with characters entering stage actually dripping wet.
The Foreigner uses humor to touch on some very serious subjects, and does so well. The penultimate menace the characters face in the final act, the Ku Klux Klan, can be shocking to see on stage in a comedy, but their presence only underlines the bonds formed during the show. Charlie may be unable to speak, but that allows the audience to relate to him, as they both seem to be watching the events unfold together, and they learn together that words aren’t always necessary.
If you go:
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; through Aug. 19
Where: American Stage Theatre Company at the Raymond James Theatre, 163 Third St. N., St. Petersburg;
Tickets: $29-$47, depending on date and time of performance; (727) 823-7529 or visit www.americanstage.org
Review by Craig Corlis