Monday, June 04, 2007

The Foreigner: Actor's Play makes an Actors' Play

(reflections after seeing a production of Larry Shue's comedy THE FOREIGNER at Pope High School in Marietta, GA)

To the ranks of great actors-turned-playwrights David Mamet, Harold Pinter, and William Shakespeare, add Larry Shue.

I met the actor Shue during his stint as a leading member of the Harlequin Dinner Theatre, a company that produced musicals in Atlanta and DC, running them a month and then trading them. He was particularly memorable in the title role of WHERE'S CHARLEY? I met him after a performance of I DO, I DO, in which he starred with Dorothy Collins. Gaga over her status as alumna of Sondheim's original cast of FOLLIES, I got her autograph, but just shook his hand.

During that period of his life, Shue was drafting the play that gives him his claim to immortality, THE FOREIGNER. Set in a small bed-and-breakfast near Atlanta in the late 70s, it tells the story of Charlie, a shy Englishman seeking a quiet retreat. His friend Froggy Le Seur concocts a fool-proof plan to allow Charlie to keep to himself: let it be known that Charlie is really Cha-oo-lee, a foreigner who speaks no English. But the plan backfires, as all the inhabitants of the bed-and-breakfast find it therapeutic or fun to speak their deepest secrets to him.

The show had a couple years' run off-Broadway in the early 80s. Shue starred first as "Froggy," then as "Charlie." Then a plane crash killed Shue en route to Hollywood with the screenplay for the movie version around 1984. The play has been in constant production ever since, and I've directed it with middle schoolers twice, most recently four years ago with a cast of devoted and gifted eighth graders.

Now, Chase McCallum, who played Froggy in eighth grade, grown up and graduating from high school, has on his own produced and directed a superb staging of the show, playing Charlie. He drafted Carrie Stallings, another veteran of that fabled staging of four years ago, to reprise her role as the older woman "Betty." Reed McCallum, who followed Chase in my drama program, portrayed the duplicitous Reverend David Lee with subtlety and relish.

Chase chose to seat the audience on stage, closing the curtains behind us, to create an intimate "black box" feel in the large auditorium. His actors inhabited that little bed-and-breakfast for real, ignoring the chatty couple and the rude high schoolers and the video cameras.

As I say whenever some snob claims that Shakespeare was a front man for some aristocrat, only an experienced actor could write this way. Shue generously gives every actor great chances to show off with set pieces and moments of transformation that delight the audience. While words are the source of great fun throughout the play, it's a play about characters, not their lines. Charlie gets huge laughs simply by reacting silently, and he gets to perform a virtuosic story in mime and double-talk (an actor's exercise used in drama class -- to create stories from nonsense lines) . One stretch of the script that makes an audience breathless features the young woman in the play reading aloud from a newspaper to mute Charlie, gradually breaking down from sarcastic debutante to a child bride, vulnerable and scared. The emblematic moment of the play, often photographed, is the mute breakfast scene in which Charlie draws out a sullen boy who is supposed to be mentally deficient. He does it by simply imitating the boy's movements -- another actor's game that any drama student would know. The boy, finding himself in the role of teacher, grows in self-confidence.

In a way, the whole play is about what acting teaches. Charlie tells Froggy (I paraphrase), "I'm acquiring a personality. People hand me pieces of it." The actor always works to assemble the personality of his role, and the good actor finds pieces in his own real life and experience to make the role real. A good actor reaches a better understanding of himself and others in the process.

The play makes reference to THE WIZARD OF OZ in several subtle ways, and spectacularly so in the finale. It's no casual connection. The inhabitants of the bed-and-breakfast are as different and lost as the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and Dorothy. Through the agency of the imaginary foreigner, each discovers inner resources in time to defeat the forces of evil, and we feel great affection for the characters by the end.

A couple of personal notes, here. First, having seen the play in a professional production, and having spent literally hundreds of hours of my life in rehearsals for equally professional student productions, I had the odd and pleasurable sensation of coming home when I saw the set for Chase's production. The same thing happens when I see a production of SWEENEY TODD or any other familiar musical or opera. Seeing such a play, so familiar, and so rich in feeling, is a bit like participating in a religious ritual -- engendering the same feelings, no matter the size of the church or the characteristics of the priest. No wonder the ancient Greeks worshipped through theatre: these characters are spirits that possesses the actors who play them, and I know them and love them, no matter who embodies them.

Second, we who saw the play Friday night shared the unique and bittersweet experience of being forced to leave at the end of act one. A passing storm blew out the electricity early in the act, and emergency generators provided some fluorescent light for the remainder. Fire regulations required us to leave as soon as possible. Chase, having planned this production for years, remained in character as all of us, audience, actors, crew, filed out in darkness into the parking lot, all disappointed. Impromptu, Chase presented Charlie's "story" for us, with the dumpster as his backdrop - a strange and memorable moment of theatre.

1 comment:

Fish said...

While I agree that The Foreigner is an enjoyable play, I feel that the very exercises Shue incorporated (some of which you mentioned) showed he was still at a very elementary level of playwriting. Perhaps had he lived, he would have developed the writing skills necessary to create something that wasn't so dependent on basic theater games.