Playwrights seldom create farce these days, and theater companies seldom produce it.
One reason, no doubt, is the high risk-reward ratio. Farce is frothy entertainment, but by definition it's dense and complicated. If the writing isn't scrupulously clever the plots can become muddled, and if the performances aren't precise the humor can cross the line from joyful silliness into abject stupidity.
Fortunately, though, everything's right with Larry Shue's The Foreigner and its hilarious staging at American Stage.
Shue's play is so witty that it's easy to overlook the absurdity of the complex situations he's devised.
His characters are, intentionally, flatly drawn, but meticulous performances by the seven-person cast infuse the characters with enough warmth and menace that they're involving.
The idea is that a desperately introverted Englishman is stuck for three days at a hunting lodge in Georgia. Intensely fearful of human interaction, he pretends not to speak or understand English.
The other dramatis personae are locals, some of whom regard him with fascination, some with suspicion.
But because they think he can't understand, they talk freely to him. He gradually develops genuine affection for some of his companions, and starts to realize that others are up to no good. He needs to find a way to communicate so he can foil the bad guys' plans without blowing his cover.
The central joke starts to wear thin in the second act, so Shue switches to fast-paced plot development, even offering a hint of real drama.
The story line obviously is preposterous, but Shue's crisp writing makes it work. He has us laugh at the characters' foibles and simplicity without allowing us to laugh at the people themselves, and he balances the hijinks with just the right touch of heart and sentimentality.
It's hard to find a flaw with the American Stage production. Even before the first character steps on stage, Tom Hansen's stunningly rich set, the deeply detailed dark-wood interior of the lodge, impresses.
Chris Crawford in the title role is an obvious standout. His character grows from a socially paralyzed nebbish into a take-charge hero, and Crawford accomplishes the transformation neatly and so gradually.
But the whole cast works on that same level. The wonderful Elizabeth Dimon, a former American Stage regular who's been largely absent in recent years, returns with a delightful turn as the kind-hearted lodge owner who's excited to meet her first foreigner. Greyson Lewis skillfully skirts the cliches of his simple-minded Southern character and Gavin Hawk has the magnetism and slickness his nefarious minister requires.
Natalie Symons as the minister's decidedly unworldly fiancée and Matt Lunsford in a small role as the foreigner's British buddy are similarly on-target. Dan Matisa starts off as a caricature of a redneck, but as the plot develops it turns out that he's smarter than most of the other characters, and Matisa lets the evil ooze from him.
The cast is so uniformly excellent that director Matt Chirioni has to get a lot of the credit. The timing and energy of this production elevate the material, which was fine to begin with.
Marty Clear is a Tampa freelance writer who specializes in performing arts. He can be reached at [email protected]