Broderick Fine In Funny Farce
Strong Supporting Cast Of `The Foreigner' Abets
Star's Display Of His Diverse Talents
November 12, 2004
By MALCOLM JOHNSON,
Special to The Hartford Courant
NEW YORK -- Watching Matthew Broderick, initially almost wordless in the
title role of Larry Shue's "The Foreigner," provides a
delightful lesson in the art of listening. But Broderick also excels in
wacky mime, in nutty acrobatics, in nonsense storytelling and in modest
charm as his Charlie Baker undergoes a growing self-realization.
Shue's 1983 farce, revived by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura
Pels Theatre, focuses on a masquerade by a painfully shy Englishman,
sequestered at a rustic lodge deep in the piney woods of Tilghman County,
Ga. Suffering because of the oncoming death of his adulterous but beloved
wife, Charlie has come to the old boardinghouse owned by the motherly
Betty Meeks. Because Charlie fears any human contact, his military buddy,
Sgt. "Froggy" LeSueur, invents a scam. Posing as a
"foreigner" who knows only rudimentary English, Charlie finds
himself able to eavesdrop on the most intimate conversations.
In a pivotal early moment, Broderick's Charlie perches in an armchair in
an alcove in one corner of Anna Louizos' homey, cluttered, wood-paneled
setting, as a comely young blonde informs her fiancÚ that she is
pregnant. The ensuing spat is the focus, but Broderick draws the eye as he
seems to shrink in his armchair, his eyes full of worry but also brimming
with curiosity. When the woman spots him, she and her boyfriend are
outraged. But Charlie's landlady and protector, Betty, steps in to explain
that her guest is harmless, as he has understood nothing.
Being the deadpan witness to secrets drives Shue's unlikely but often very
funny play, which opened off-Broadway in 1984, only a year before the
playwright's death in the crash of a small plane. Broderick takes full
advantage of every absurd turn of events in Charlie's strange interlude,
which gains him three close friends: Frances Sternhagen's sweet, clucking
Betty, and a gormless brother and sophisticated sister, Ellard and
The artistic merits of "The Foreigner" are debatable, but it
cannot be denied that Shue created a wonderfully playable character in
Charlie. Carried away by his own whimsical imagination, Charlie performs
an intricate and extended act of imitative ritual with Kevin Cahoon's
goofy, gangly Ellard, recalling the mirror game played out between Groucho
and Harpo in "Duck Soup." Here, with a juice cup atop his head,
Broderick follows Cahoon through an increasingly ridiculous series of
silent poses and silly dances, warming to the liberating fun of finding a
soul mate. Later, having "learned" some English from Ellard, an
apt teacher, Charlie ransacks his memory for foreign phrases and
meaningless coinages, as he improvises a shaggy-dog folk tale in a
trumped-up native tongue that evokes Polish or Russian.
At its silly, romantic heart, "The Foreigner" traces the opening
up of a repressed sad sack, who even manages to find true love in Mary
Catherine Garrison's bitter, regretful Catherine. But Shue complicates
Charlie's chicanery as a comic shadow by exposing the presumed
"dummy" to a pair of sick bigots: Catherine's phonily pious Rev.
David Marshall Lee and his proudly redneck co-conspirator, Owen Musser.
Through his dumb show, Charlie learns of the plot of these two Klansmen to
take over Betty's lodge as the new headquarters for their "invisible
The plot thus hops and skips between slimy skulduggery and folksy humor.
Under the direction of Scott Schwartz, the relationships between the good
characters plays out endearingly, as Charlie brings out the inner adult in
the childlike, backward Ellard, and appeals to both women, first to
Sternhagen's bright, down-home Mother Goose, thrilled to have an exotic
stranger under her roof to feed and coddle, then to Garrison's neglected
and unhappy Catherine, warmed by the presence of an outsider who will not
understand her intimate confessions (the sometimes testy heiress and ex-deb
is quite a change from Garrison's sexy, twisted Squeaky Fromme in last
season's "Assassins," also from Roundabout).
Broderick, onstage almost throughout the play, clearly dominates the
evening, from his entrance in the rain with the big, virile "Froggy"
of the invaluable and protean Byron Jennings, here sporting a big
handlebar mustache, camouflage gear and a warrior's beret (explosives are
his speciality). But Cahoon's daffy Ellard and Sternhagen's grandmotherly
Betty give the support that Broderick's lost science-fiction proofreader
needs, while Garrison insinuates a certain allure in the divided
Catherine, who is undergoing a post-deb crisis. Neal Huff makes the Rev.
David a preppy hypocrite, smooth and obviously up to no good, but Lee
Tergesen makes a perfect adversary as the tattooed Owen with his spat-out
hatreds and AC/DC belt buckle.
The high points of Schwartz's inventive and smartly paced production
include the first confrontation between the bullying but pusillanimous
Owen and a resourceful and playful Charlie. In this unforgettable scene,
Broderick nimbly capers on the furniture, as Charlie uses his newly
learned English (plus his hoard of sci-fi fantasy) to make Tergesen's Owen
cower at the alien threat and a swarm: "Bees Come Down."
In the end, Schwartz and poor Shue, an actor and writer who left behind
only two other major plays ("The Nerd" and the more serious
"Wenceslas Square"), join to produce a wonderfully spooky
comeuppance for the white knights in fool's caps, capped by a big kaboom
from the redoubtable "Froggy."
The Roundabout deserves admiration for resurrecting Shue's first New York
hit (in 1984 Charlie was played by Anthony Heald, now best known for
combining deliciously with fava beans). The play is thus rescued from
community theaters and high schools, but still has not made it to
Broadway, as "The Nerd" did. This means, of course, that
Broderick will not be eligible for another Tony. But perhaps the
Roundabout can perpetuate the production by filming it, as it did for its
"The Man Who Came to Dinner." Go, HBO.
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