Though unlike in countless ways, Joe Orton and Larry Shue shared two things in common: one comic, the other tragic. They wrote two of the funniest plays in the English language, and both died young. It can be difficult to watch Orton’s What the Butler Saw and Shue’s The Foreigner (or to read John Kennedy Toole’s brilliant novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, for that matter, since he also left way before his time). Along with a deep sense of loss, one can’t help but wonder what masterpieces remain unwritten.
Shue was irrepressibly funny. Even his stage directions. And The Foreigner, after some expository speed bumps, is a total hoot.
As is the Lamb’s show.
Charlie Baker proofreads science fiction books, has for 20 years. The middle-aged Britisher has an “active fear of talk.” Not so much of talk, more a fright that after someone says something, it’s his turn to speak.
Thanks to his friend, Froggy LeSeur (a Brit staff sergeant who teaches Yanks how to dynamite mountains in rural Georgia) Charlie will spend three days at a rustic fishing lodge.
“How does one acquire personality?” he asks. “What is it like to tell a funny story?” The answer, based on an ingenious ruse, makes for an often-hilarious farce, at once silly and touching.
Larry Shue was also an actor. They say when he played Charlie, he mugged like mad, and everyone loved it. The excellent Geno Carr does a more subtle take at Lamb’s. He glides along — not over — but right at the top. He walks a tightrope between hardcore hamming and grounded, dramatic credibility. He even sneaks in half-perceived winks at the audience, whom Charlie treats as a confederate.
Carr is consistent throughout. Along with Kevin Hafso-Koppman, a kick as the supposedly daffy Ellard Simms, Carr does full justice to Shue’s set pieces: mirror-miming breakfast, learning English, teaching Charlie’s “native” tongue to Georgians, becoming a hellhound who shouts metaphysical gibberish.
On some occasions, cast members nudge toward the shrill in their deliveries, and push too hard here and there, but for the most part they perform, rightly, as if each were a foreigner to the others.
Stacy Allen stands out as Owen Musser, local constable and high-poo-bah of the KKK. The night I caught the show, the audience boo’d him. That was a compliment. Allen was funny at times, and creepily menacing at others.
Property master Michael McKeon decks Mike Buckley’s high ceiling lodge with scads of knickknacks, trophies, and multi-patterned knit-work. Juliet Czoka and Jemima Dutra’s costumes, Nathan Peirson’s lighting, and especially Jon Lorenz’s booming sounds make valuable contributions.
For all its levity, The Foreigner is tricky to stage. Like Charlie, it must walk a tightrope between the daffy and the dire: goofy antics and a cameo by the KKK of Tillman County. Director Kerry Meads handles quirky tonal shifts with ease. And as long as Shue’s good-natured charm holds sway, one can almost feel convinced that Owen Musser and his gaggle of blood-swilling xenophobes will never pay the lodge a return visit.