Language of Comedy


I have, I confess, a fondness for The Foreigner.

If the play hadn’t stood the test of time and I felt myself apologizing for its flaws, that would be a weakness rather than a fondness, but the laughter at the Laura Pels Theatre, loud and frequent, needs no apology, and I was startled to discover, 20 years later, how much of that laughter was mine. The Foreigner is what it is, an old-style farcical comedy with a moral. Its good people are good, its bad ones are bad, and you know which are which from the first five minutes. (Clue: The guy who insults a stranger’s mother, because he thinks the stranger won’t understand what he’s saying, is bad.) Larry Shue, who died tragically young in a plane crash, was a Middle American; here and in his other successful comedy, The Nerd, he drew his situations and his laughs from the heartland, and he made them heartfelt. But this is only, you might say, the cake on top of the icing, for Shue was also an ironist and a wit, who had spent some time in Eastern Europe. The Foreigner‘s conventional exterior is filled with a creamy liqueur of ideas, poured out with tangy playfulness, about language and communication, about nation and alienation, about love and understanding, and even about death. It’s always surprising—who’d expect to find a corn muffin filled with Cointreau?

The setup has the elegant absurdity of all comedy classics: A preternaturally shy drudge, a British publisher’s proofreader who has spent his life declining to have a personality, is plucked from his London context by circumstances too preposterous to spoil, and dropped in a rural Georgia bed-and-breakfast, where the locals have been told that he understands no English. Since there’s a virtual maelstrom of conspiracies and secrets whirling around the place, he immediately hears half a dozen things that make it impossible for him to reveal the truth. So without giving himself away, the wimp has to rout the racists, unmask the hypocrite, rescue the heiress from a disastrous marriage, instill some pride in her slow-witted brother, save the house from foreclosure and the warm-hearted widow who owns it from eviction, all while learning how to be his own man. Bets on who winds up becoming the life of the party and marrying the heiress will not be taken by this office.

This bare plot summary tells you almost nothing about what actually happens in The Foreigner, which is a minute-by-minute parade of eccentricities, absurdities, and set pieces for which the plot provides only the opportunities. Where so many farces have the heavy feeling of absurd situations being worked out with relentless logic, The Foreigner dances free; its solid structure encases (along with the wit) a spirit of giddy foolery, so tailored to the play’s specifics that describing the fun in detail would be like letting the air out of an inflatable toy. Imagine trying to explain the humor of a play in which one of the loudest laughs comes on the line “I liked the part about the tractor.” Shue’s “big” scenes, like the hero’s breakfast conversation with the slow-witted boy, or the one in which he spooks the bigot with phrases recollected from his proofreading drudgery, are the dramatic equivalent of magical seven-league boots: Any actor they fit can step into them and fly.

Flying, as it happens, is what Matthew Broderick often seems to be doing in the title role of Scott Schwartz’s Roundabout revival. Anthony Heald, who created the role 20 years ago, was wonderful, but set your memories firmly aside: This character might have been invented for Broderick. The reticent, inhibited, self-denigrating man who suddenly discovers himself to be capable of imagination, passion, and excess is Broderick’s stock in trade, and he spreads it out here lavishly, leaping on chairs and tabletops, dancing in self-satisfied glee when he scores one off the bad guys, literally seeming to tie his body in knots while he struggles to keep the hero’s imaginary language flowing.

Partly, he’s able to bring this off because he’s so well supported: The entire original cast was a gem, but here’s a gem of matching luster to set beside it. Frances Sternhagen usually plays women smarter, primmer, saner, and more Northern than the frail and dotty chatelaine of this backwoods lodge, but you would never guess that from hearing her cackle, or watching the way her eyes light up whenever Broderick starts rattling off his sub-Slavic nonsense. Byron Jennings as Froggy, the regular visitor who first brings the hero into the absurd situation, has remade himself into a large, raffish, coarse character in whom it’s impossible to recognize the haughtily handsome matinee idol of Dinner at Eight. And speaking of remakings, Neal Huff, recently of Take Me Out, seems to have acquired a new personality in the course of putting his clothes back on. He endows the hypocritical minister with a phony charm so thoroughly slick that his every speech seems to have the effect of an oil spill on the air around him. These actors surpass, in their various ways, the memorable original cast; the rest—Mary Catherine Garrison, Kevin Cahoon, and Lee Tergesen—are just delightfully equal to it. In any event, how rare to find a cast, as well as a play, that doesn’t let down your memories of 20 years ago. “Why can we not always be young,” Hazlitt asked, “and seeing The School for Scandal?” While The Foreigner is not to be rated quite as high as Sheridan’s classic, it is among America’s best comedies; seeing it again can make even a 2,000-year-old sea tortoise like me feel a little younger. And to see it now, when the real-world equivalents of its villains are running the country, reveals it to be morally informative as well as therapeutic.