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Capable cast offers lite laffs in 'Foreigner'.

OFF BROADWAY

THE FOREIGNER

(LAURA PELS THEATER; 404 SEATS; $71.25)

NEW YORK A Roundabout Theater Co. presentation of a play in two acts by Larry Shue. Directed by Scott Schwartz. Sets, Anna Louizos; costumes, David Murin; lighting, Pat Collins; sound, Janet Kalas; production stage manager, Jay Adler. Reviewed Nov. 3, 2004. Opened Nov. 7. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.
Charlie Baker             Matthew Broderick
Betty Meeks               Frances Sternhagen
Ellard Simms              Kevin Cahoon
Catherine Simms           Mary Catherine Garrison
Rev. David Marshall Lee   Neal Huff
Sgt. "Froggy" LeSueur     Byron Jennings
Owen Musser               Lee Tergesen


A capable cast captained by ever-amiable Matthew Broderick in a puckish turn provides a steady trickle of laughs but not much sustenance in the Roundabout's revival of "The Foreigner." An Off Broadway hit in a 1984 production directed by Jerry Zaks--still running almost a year after it opened when actor-playwright Shue was killed in a plane crash--the featherweight comedy reveals its seams and the annoying preposterousness of its plot in Scott Schwartz's lethargic staging. Like last season's "Sly Fox," it shows the dusty laboriousness of underaccelerated farce.

Shue's play offers what would seem an ideal vehicle for Broderick's trademark brand of nebbishy self-effacement in the role of Charlie Baker, an innocuous Brit proofreader described by his philandering wife as "shatteringly, profoundly boring," yet eager to know how it feels to have the kind of dynamic personality that provokes laughter, anger or respect.

On a trip to a backwoods Georgia hunting lodge, Charlie's fear of mingling with strangers prompts his old Army buddy Froggy (Byron Jennings) to present him as a foreigner who speaks no English. But rather than providing peaceful anonymity, Charlie's disguise makes him an exotic enigma ripe for inspection by Betty Meeks (Frances Sternhagen), the unworldly widow who owns the lodge, and by other guests.

Feigning obliviousness to the secrets being spilled within his earshot, Charlie learns of the dubious morality of supposedly upstanding preacher David (Neal Huff); the unplanned pregnancy of his debutante fiancee, Catherine (Mary Catherine Garrison); the underestimated mental agility of her seemingly dimwitted brother Ellard (Kevin Cahoon); and the devious plan for ethnic cleansing of Owen (Lee Tergesen), a redneck Klansman with his eye on the sheriffs job.

Schwartz ("Golda's Balcony") prods the action action at a geriatric pace, particularly in the early scenes. While the second act acquires some energy, the pro-flared discord between the play's lighter vocation and the dark developments of the KKK threat becomes increasingly apparent, as does its asinine plotting. To some degree, the cast supplies a lifeline despite the self-conscious clowning of the lead.

During their second tenure in "The Producers" on Broadway--when tightness and timing were sacrificed to the actors' in-jokey shriek and mutual amusement--Broderick and Nathan Lane seemed to have decided they were far cuter and funnier than their material. That habit was advanced by Lane in "The Frogs" and by Broderick here.

Charlie's three principal comic set pieces--a bout of breakfast-table mimicry with Ellard; a joke told in faux-Slavic gibberish; the pinpointing of his homeland on an imaginary globe--are funny for about half their duration, but become victims of self-indulgent overkill. Broderick's out-of-character smirks seem designed to prompt unscripted laughter from his fellow east members, who oblige too readily.

In the actor's more disciplined moments, the perf conveys Charlie's joy as he gradually warms to the possibilities of his guise, shaking off his drearily correct Brit persona and morphing into a playful live wire--I personal pet to doting Betty, prize English pupil to Ellard and confidant to Catherine.

Sternhagen is daffy and endearing, but this estimable actress is at her best with flinty, seen it-all women given to whip-smart observations; she seems miscast as the kindly old dolt.

The real comic sparks in the supporting cast come from Garrison, a dark delight as Squeaky Fromme in Roundabout's "Assassins" last season and a presence both spiky and sweet here as bratty but open-hearted rich girl Catherine; and Cahoon, who thoroughly inhabits his character, deftly balancing Ellard's gradually heightened confidence with his still uncertain intellect.

Anna Louizos' rustic, busily detailed set and Pat Collins' crisp lighting give the production a polished feel. But at 2 1/2 hours, even the fluffy play's funniest stretches seem sorely stretched, crying out for Schwartz to pick up the pace.
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Title Annotation:The Foreigner
Author:Rooney, David
Publication:Variety
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:Nov 15, 2004
Words:712
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