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IN ANY LANGUAGE, 'FOREIGNER' SHINES.

Byline: Evan Henerson Theater Critic

HAD HE NOT been killed in a plane crash, there's no guarantee that Larry Shue would have filched outright the light comedy crown from Neil Simon. But with plays like ``The Nerd'' and especially the 1983 comedy ``The Foreigner,'' Shue demonstrated that he could navigate his way around both the funny bone and the human heart with equal dexterity.

``The Foreigner,'' a tender bauble about a shy British accountant who revamps his boring image by pretending to be a non-English speaker, isn't exactly a masterpiece of comic drama. But it's deft, smart and laugh- out-loud funny in the right hands. It can be no accident that Matthew Broderick - that master of the sad sack turned hero - recently played the lead role of Charlie off-Broadway. Nor will that performance signal the apex of ``The Foreigner's'' popularity. Charlies figure to be sprouting up in community theaters for as long as community theaters exist.

At the Odyssey Theatre, however, Steven Albrezzi has directed a quite delightful production of ``The Foreigner'' that is thoroughly professional. Cast in the role of Charlie is JD Cullum, L.A.'s own man of 1,000 voices ... including nebbishy ones.

Around L.A., Cullum (the son of ``Northern Exposure'' actor John Cullum) is almost as omnipresent as productions of ``The Foreigner.'' He played half the population of an Irish village in the Mark Taper Forum's two-hander ``Stones in His Pocket'' earlier this year. He was excellent there and is superb here.

In ``The Foreigner,'' he's a hunch-shouldered, pouty-faced loser, inexplicably gloomy over the failing health of his promiscuous wife. Good friend Froggy LeSeur (played by Paul V. O'Connor) stashes Charlie at his favorite backwoods Georgia inn for a few days while he (Froggy) conducts military training. Since Charlie is too shy to want to converse with the locals, Froggy instructs landlady Betty (Angela Paton) that his friend speaks no English.

Of course this means that absolutely everybody ends up speaking to Charlie because A) he'll keep their secrets, B) he's an outstanding listener and C) he can - they think - be easily exploited. By the second act, Charlie is supplementing his gibberish with ``newly learned'' English and on his way to foiling the machinations of the sinister Reverend David (John Hemphill) and winning the affections of the Reverend's long-suffering fiancee, Catherine (Alyss Henderson).

Now, exactly how much comic mileage can be comfortably extracted from gibberish jokes really depends on the performer doing the jabbering. When Charlie blossoms, changing from doormat to darling, Cullum makes the transformation a treat to watch. He's quite funny in silent mode and even funnier telling a supposedly amusing anecdote in gobbledygook.

Albrezzi's smoothly flowing production surrounds Cullum with an able cast of straight men and women. Dave Florek is appropriately grizzled and frightening as the Reverend's local henchman, and Henderson's Catherine intersperses her hysteria with humor. Colin Fickes is dead-on as Catherine's slow-witted younger brother, Ellard, the man upon whose fortune Reverend David's plot hinges.

Ellard, who takes it upon himself to teach Charlie English, also gets the play's best laugh line. Says Catherine: ``Ellard, you couldn't catch a chipmunk if all of his legs were cut off and he were glued to your hand.'' Replies Ellard, ``I wouldn't want to, then.''

That's Larry Shue's humor. A pity an act of fate ensured that he left such a limited supply of it behind.

Evan Henerson, (818) 713-3651

evan.henerson(at)dailynews.com

THE FOREIGNER - Three and one half stars

Where: Odyssey Theatre, 205 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday; through Jan. 30.

Tickets: $20.50 to $25. Call (310) 477-2055.

In a nutshell: An oft-performed comic gem, played to near perfection by JD Cullum and cast at the Odyssey.

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

JD Cullum, left, portrays a melancholy man who pretends to understand no English, attracting the attention of Colin Fickes, in ``The Foreigner'' at the Odyssey Theatre.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 24, 2004
Words:660
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