BWW Reviews: Totem Pole's THE FOREIGNER Shouldn't Be a Stranger
Every so often, something is so funny that you can't help yourself - you laugh helplessly, even at the parts that probably aren't all that funny. And sometimes it involves things that don't sound funny at all - families with secrets from each other. Religion. Racists. The Klu Klux Klan. Weapons of mass destruction. Little things like that.
Larry Shue's THE FOREIGNER opened Off-Broadway at the Astor Theatre in 1984, and it came back, courtesy of Roundabout Theatre Company, in 2004. In between and since, it's been everywhere in America, causing problematic fits of inappropriate laughter at seemingly unfunny subjects wherever it goes.
At Totem Pole Playhouse, it's run its usual streak of gut-busting laughter, with a stellar cast pulling it off. The story of a meek science-fiction editor from London playing a non-English-speaking foreigner to avoid having to deal with people at the guest lodge he's visiting in Georgia is on display with the Jenkins clan populating most of the stage.
The Jenkins clan? Yes, you know them if you know theatre or television. Ken Jenkins, also the director of this Southern debacle, had most recently made a name for himself in NBC's popular series, SCRUBS, but he's also fondly remembered from Joe Papp's Shakespeare in the Park and more recently from BIG RIVER. Ken plays British Staff Sergeant "Froggy" LeSueur, who's on exercises at a military base in Georgia, where he knows a guest lodge owner, Betty Meeks. He's brought with him his friend Charlie Baker, played by Dan Jenkins of BIG RIVER, ANGELS IN AMERICA, and BILLY ELLIOT, who is stinging from his frequently-cheating wife's hospitalization - he's torn between getting away, which he has, and staying at her side while she recovers from surgery.
The third generations of Jenkins is Ellard Simms, played by Jesse Jenkins - he's the minor brother of heiress Catherine Simms (played by Katherine Hiler of THE KENTUCKY CYCLE and of numerous Off-Broadway appearances, who is, incidentally, also married to Dan Jenkins). Ellard's believed to be a bit "slow," and Catherine is holding his inheritance from their parents while waiting to see if he's capable of handling it. If he isn't, she'll keep it and use it to aid her soon-to-be husband, Reverend David Lee, in his ministry. What she doesn't know about her beloved is just what his ministry is. Corey Brill, the slimy Reverend Lee, is another Broadway veteran, from CABARET and GORE VIDAL'S THE BEST MAN.
If guest lodge owner Betty Meeks looks familiar, it may be from actor Jill Larson's work on ALL MY CHILDREN... or her work on ONE LIFE TO LIVE, or her work on AS THE WORLD TURNS. Owen Musser is played by Paris Peet, a local theatre veteran and professor. Owen, the detestable local property codes enforcement officer, is suspiciously close to Reverend Lee, and anxious to condemn Betty's lodge.
Dan Jenkins is the core of the show as Charlie, who's trying to pretend he knows no English while finding himself in the center of the action - Catherine vents all of her secrets to him, thinking he's a non-understanding sounding board, while Ellard's increasing his own English skills trying to teach Charlie English, and Betty Meeks is ridiculously adoring of her strange guest. Owen, on the other hand, doesn't trust any of them furriners who speak no English, and he wants to give Charlie what-fer. As Charlie, Dan Jenkins is delightful as he tries to communicate in a language he's inventing as he goes along, inventing entire stories in his non-language, and denouncing an incursion into the lodge in that same non-language, falling back on science fiction dialogue to fill in the gaps. Fans of the cult flick THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL will thrill to the strangest use of "Klaatu barata nikto" ever pronounced.
Jill Larson is lovely as Betty Meeks, with comic timing and skills that may surprise those unfamiliar with her work. Her solution of how to communicate with people who don't speak English is a familiar one, but in Larson's hands, or, rather, voice, it's worth a laugh every time she employs it.
Brill and Peet are slimy enough for audiences to want a bath after meeting them. Peet's Musser is worthy of catcalls from the seats, and Brill's Lee is every inch the secretly-creepy minister that everyone fears discovering. Lee's plans for Catherine's money are hardly as noble as she thinks.
All three of the Jenkins men are worth the price of admission themselves, though as the show's written, Ken is underutilized, as Froggy's part (though important) is relatively small. It's a pity, as it's both engaging and instructive to watch him at work. That lack, however, is compensated by watching Dan's Charlie and Jesse's Ellard both grow - personally for Charlie, intellectually for Ellard - onstage as the story progresses.
There's no question that the show was worth catching. Just prepare for some stomach pains from the strain of laugh exhaustion. Saving the world, or at least a corner of it, will never look so funny again. Klaatu barata nikto.
Upcoming at Totem Pole is GODSPELL, beginning August 8. For information and tickets, visit www.totempoleplayhouse.org.