- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2006

Sometimes you can be more yourself by being someone else. That revelation strikes Charlie Baker (JJ Kaczynski), a cripplingly shy man who gets a life — and a personality — when he pretends not to understand or speak English.

Larry Shue’s “The Foreigner” is the theatrical equivalent of the former “CBS Evening News With Bob Schieffer” or reruns of “Matlock” — reassuring, seasoned and as comforting as a cup of pudding. Mr. Shue’s comedy has been a staple of community and regional theaters since its premiere in 1983, and its decaffeinated appeal makes it a shoo-in for those who like their plays gentle and non-threatening.

The Olney Theatre Center’s production, directed by Stewart F. Lane, the self-proclaimed “Mr. Broadway,” yields few thunderbolts but is well-acted and easy on the eyes.

James Kronzer has constructed a cozy, slightly scruffy fishing-lodge set that looks authentic right down to the log beams, wooden bass plaques and crocheted throw pillows.

The lodge is owned by Betty Meeks (Rusty Clauss), a sweet Georgian lady of advancing years who wants to keep her house from being taken over by the villainous good old boy Owen Musser (Delaney Williams). She sees her salvation in the lodgers Rev. David Marshall Lee (Clinton Brandhagen) and his wealthy fiancee, Catherine Simms (Lindsay Haynes).

Betty gets a welcome diversion from her troubles with a visit from British army officer “Froggy” LeSueur (Field Blauvelt), a boisterous regular, and his friend Charlie. While Froggy is helping the Yanks, he asks Betty to look after his pal, moodily coping with a wife who would be out philandering as usual if not for the fact she’s ill and in the hospital.

Charlie does not want to speak or be spoken to, so Froggy tells Betty and the other guests that he is from some indeterminate country and does not comprehend anything anybody is saying. Charlie’s unique position allows him to overhear many of the town’s scandals and become privy to some dark secrets.

Spouting gibberish and pidgin Southern English taught to him by a slow-witted boarder named Ellard (Ben Shovlin), Charlie manages to expose corruption in the church and local government and become his own extroverted man in the process.

Act 1 of “The Foreigner” takes some time getting started, although there is a smattering of amusement when Betty has an Ugly American moment when trying to communicate with Charlie by shouting. The breakfast exchanges between Ellard and Charlie are sweetly agreeable, as Ellard teaches his new friend cornpone English, with “fork” pronounced “four-ork” and “spoon” “spa-ooooon.”

The second half of the comedy revs up nicely, with Charlie trying to set things right without revealing his true nature. The clever, mischievous side of his personality shines through in a scene in which he puts down the bullying Owen and suggests that the Reverend might be a dirty man of the cloth without saying a recognizable word. Mr. Kaczynski is a gifted physical comic, at one point resorting to a pastiche of ethnic dances to get his point across, and his portrayal ably communicates Charlie’s softness and strengths.

A heavy-handed subplot involving the Ku Klux Klan jeopardizes the genial mood of “The Foreigner,” but Charlie’s plan to thwart the sheet-covered mob unfolds with sitcom cuteness. Attempts to modernize the script with topical references are a hit-and-miss affair, with some of the updates blatantly incongruous.

The characters are mostly stock, but Mr. Blauvelt conveys warmth and heartiness as Froggy, and Miss Clauss is the picture of flinty goodness as Betty Meeks. Miss Haynes brings a bracing tartness to the role of the spoiled Southern heiress, and as her brother Ellard, Mr. Shovlin grows from a nuisance to someone who glows with newfound confidence after Charlie helps reveal his special kind of intelligence.

Much of “The Foreigner” will seem like armchair travel because you get to experience a mildly different culture without ever leaving your comfort zone.

**1/2

WHAT: “The Foreigner” by Larry Shue

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Oct. 22.

TICKETS: $34 to $44

PHONE: 301/924-3400

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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