The play came to the Heritage Theatre on its opening night in Cedar, free of any first-night jitters. It first opened at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City in June and so the actors were ready to deliver a comic romp that is well polished in each laughter-inducing moment.
The play begins a little slowly with a shy Englishman and his pal Froggy LeSueur entering a grandmotherly-looking Fishing Lodge in Georgia talking about Charlie’s severe anxiety. Spoiler Alert: Fortunately, this is a false impression of the play to come. It picks up speed and the story line becomes one guffaw after another. Unfortunately, the set is reminiscent of many of the Neil Simon Festival’s past plays. I like a good unique set design and this set did not grab my attention. But, seriously within 10 minutes I just did not care, because I could not stop laughing at Henry Ballesteros’s portrayal of Charlie and the other’s characters interactions with “The Foreigner.”
Charlie (soon to be known as “The Foreigner”) has arrived in Georgia with his British demolitions expert friend Froggy LeSueur (played by an optimistic Richard Hill). Charlie is fretting over his unfaithful, ailing wife who has left him feeling completely boring and useless. He begs Froggy to fix it so he does not have to speak or interact with anyone at the lodge for the next three days while Froggy is gone at the nearby military base.
Froggy comes up with a brilliant plan to convince the lodge owner, Betty Meeks (played by a grandmotherly Christine Potter Hyatt), to not speak to Charlie by telling her he is a foreigner who can’t speak or understand English.
Poor Betty tries her hardest to give Charlie his space and tells everyone else not to speak to him. But she just can’t help herself and she gets the audience laughing by the star struck way she fawns over him while plying him with tea and yelling at him in slow motion. Ballesteros blank facial expressions are hysterical as he pretends not to understand. He is unflinching. Charlie quickly becomes a fly on the wall as everyone begins to hold conversations around the quiet foreigner from an unknown country. He tries hard to stay out of everyone’s way including the engaged couple fighting in the lobby who just happensto be ex-debutante Catherine Simms (played by Amber James) and her fiancée the Reverend David Marshall Lee (played by Nathan Smith).
Since he supposedly can’t understand English, Charlie also hears the conversation following the couple’s fight between the racist and greedy building inspector Owen Musser (Alex Pizzo) that reveals the Reverend may not be exactly whom he claims to be. Suddenly Charlie is neck deep in keeping his real identity a secret and keeping Catherine, her brother Ellard, and Betty safe from the scheming Owen andthe Reverend.
Hilarity ensues. Ballesteros’s Charlie is anything but boring. He is dynamic, charismatic and endearing. There is no gesture, facial expression or dance he is unwilling to unleash to amplify the comedy of this play. At one point Ballesteros flings himself around the stage as he dances and acts out a story in a made up language because Froggy has told everyone that Charlie is a well-known raconteur in his country. The made up language is soon on everyone’s tongues as they declare everything “Blaisney, Blaisney” – The Foreigner’s made up phrase for” A’int that nice.”
Betty Meeks is a forthright, hard-working but naive grandmotherly woman. Hyatt’s portrayal had me wishing I knew a Betty Meeks and could sit in her living room for an afternoon. Catherine’s brother Ellard (played by Keaton Johns) may seem slow to everyone on stage, but Charlie knows Ellard is a sweet boy with hidden talents. Their relationship as Charlie has Ellard “teach” him English by mirroring every motion and word Ellard speaks makes for some of the funniest moments of the play. In other productions, Ellard has been played as a character who is mentally challenged but Johns’ Ellard is played with dignity and reflects a young man who is more awkward and misunderstood than mentally challenged. This small cast of type actors has been well cast and as the play moves along their actingchops reveal that their characters have hidden depth.
This play has been told in many ways across the stages of America since it first opened off Broadway in 1983. Director Clarence Gilyard, (executive director for The Neil Simon Festival) has chosen to address the racial themes in this play without turning it down the darker paths of other productions of “The Foreigner.” His focus on the comedy and the building of hope and friendship has made this play a delightful night of laughter for the whole family. Everyone in my party from the 10 year-old to the 45year-old was in stitches. I also believe in, amongst the laughter we heard, the message of the difference one person can make. In the end, Charlie’s “simply remarkable” presence proved that “The Foreigner” can leave everyone a little better off.
The Foreigner will play through Aug. 7 at the Heritage Theatre in Cedar City. For more information visit www.simonfest.org.