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Matthew Broderick (center), Kevin Cahoon,
and Frances Sternhagen in The Foreigner
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Normally, I don't set much store by guilty pleasures, but I'm going to make a partial exception with the revival of Larry Shue's comedy The Foreigner. The main reason for this is the cast, headed by Matthew Broderick, whose gift for physical comedy is on full display here and rivals in adorableness what he did in The Producers. In this play, which is one part inspired silliness to three parts uninspired silliness, he's teamed with the much less well-known Kevin Cahoon for a first-act turn that comes close to equaling anything that the celebrated Nathan Lane-Matthew Broderick ticket-selling team did in Mel Brooks' blockbuster. Indeed, the sequence -- an extended mirror routine with table utensils -- comes close in goofiness to Lucille Ball facing off with Harpo Marx on one of the most memorable I Love Lucy episodes.

The five-minute Foreigner exercise is the high point of a play that doesn't have enough of them and that, by the latter part of the second act, is a shambles. The beginning of the first act is rough going also, as Shue -- who died in a 1985 plane accident -- labors to put his premise into motion. Broderick plays Charlie Baker, a self-described boring chap brought to a Georgia fishing lodge for a three-day stay by military pal Froggy LeSueur (Byron Jennings). Why the British Charlie's there taking a break from his philandering wife isn't a question that audiences are supposed to ask; they're expected to accept that Charlie's timidity leads him to pass himself off as a man who speaks no English.

Accustoming themselves to Charlie's initial silence are lodge owner Betty Meeks (Frances Sternhagen) and a few other residents whose presence is only vaguely explained: former debutante Catherine Simms (Mary Catherine Garrison); her conniving fiancé, Reverend David Marshall Lee (Neal Huff); and her slow-witted brother, Ellard (the aforementioned Cahoon). At first Betty, Catherine and Ellard don't know what to make of Charlie, but they quickly befriend him and even begin to learn from him. Meanwhile, Reverend Lee and shady sidekick Owen Musser (Lee Tergesen) get to worrying that Charlie's influence will derail their plan to take over the lodge for devious ends. Before Charlie's visit ends, the Ku Klux Klan has arrived to menace the lodge occupants, and a detonating device that Froggy LeSueur revealed earlier is operated.

So The Foreigner is one of those jaunts in which a stranger comes through the door shortly after the curtain rises and changes everyone for the better, romantically melting at least one hard heart by the time all is said and done. Of course, there's no problem with putting a new spin on this basic plot if it's spun well. For a time, Charlie's way of insinuating himself into the others' dilemmas is loopy enough to have its charm and even a bit of a farcical edge. But Shue, reaching for dramatic excitement, eventually ups the ante by exposing Reverend Lee and chum Owen as racists and anti-Semites, an unnecessarily off-putting shift in tone. He also devises a trap for the heavies that requires the kind of whispering sitcom huddle between comic conspirators that was outdated by the time My Little Margie went off the air.

Kevin Cahoon and Matthew Broderick
in The Foreigner
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Better to dwell on Broderick's contributions. Because the fellow has a sly gentility about him, his expertise can slip by almost unnoticed, yet it's there. From the time he was in Torch Song Trilogy at 17, Broderick has had the air of someone continuously contemplating Rafael Sabatini's opening line for Scaramouche: "He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad." Sly mockery underlies his playing, particularly in the eating scene with Cahoon and again when he tells an anecdote in the nonsense language that he's dreamed up for himself. Since he's talking gobbledegook, he could be changing what he does for each performance; judging from the way the other actors react, it seems that maybe he is. Whatever he's up to, it lifts the enjoyment quotient of the production a couple of notches. Broderick surely acquired some of his acting genes from his late father, James, but he's honed the crafty underplaying, the funny walks, and the irresistible eye-glint himself.

With Broderick carrying the comedy guidon and director Scott Schwartz shrewdly promoting as much improvisation by his ensemble as the traffic allows, the actors put a glow on Shue's flawed work. Sternhagen, who tries a Southern drawl for awhile, bounces with glee through her role. Garrison, looking like a disgruntled cheerleader, couldn't be cuter. Jennings, as a fellow who seems like he has some amiable pig-sticking in his past, gives another of his reliably detailed performances. Called on to play villains, Huff and Tergesen comply with more grace than the parts deserve. And then there's Cahoon, having the time of his life while making a name for himself.

The cast members show their wares in David Murin's costumes, under Pat Collins' lighting, with sound designer Janet Kalas' occasional thunder in the background, on Anna Louizos' elaborate lodge set. (Is it wise to have so many dead animal heads mounted on the walls, possibly conjuring Moose Murders memories?) Anyone wondering about the money poured into this set might get to wondering why the Roundabout execs have devoted so much of their budget to a third-drawer entry. Maybe it's because productions like this and the fine Twelve Angry Men revival are what those folks now realize that the company does best: slick treatments of commercial but lesser work.

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