Thoughts & Musings

De Bees Come Down!
Larry Shue’s The Foreigner (1983)

©2010 by Eileen Warburton

This is as loony a mash-up of a farce as you’ll ever see here.

A couple of British former messmates, one complete with an East End accent and an improbably French name get themselves transported to backwoods Georgia. (Georgia? Georgia on a “dark and stormy night” no less.) There the shy one, a cuckolded proofreader with a head full of science fiction dialogue, is pawned off on the locals as some kind of exotic “foreigner,” to save him the awkwardness of having to engage with his hosts. The strategy backfires as Charlie finds himself the object of the kindest attentions from the distressed landlady, the washed-up former debutante staying there, and the brother considered “slow” by everyone. Like Charlie, there are other characters who aren’t what they seem: the saintly preacher who harbors a nasty secret and his partner in evil intentions, the county property inspector, Before Charlie is finished he has to foil a dastardly plot, save the dear old lady’s property from the moustache-twirling villains, heal a broken heart, and build a young man’s confidence and competence

And, it’s topical, too! For the wicked and deceptive are ripped right out of the Sarah Palin/Glen Beck playbook as they justify their hateful schemes with a too-familiar philosophy about “real Americans”—all right-wing, ignorant, race-baiting, white, so-called Christians who will take back “their” country from the “other.” That is, from blacks, Jews, Catholics, “dummy boys” (presumably, like Ellard) and foreigners. The list must also include immigrants and gays and smart-mouthed women, though it doesn’t actually address these groups.

It’s the mish-mash group of “Others” who learn to think out-of-the-box together, supporting each other as they foil the destructive and intolerant bad guys.

Furthermore, woven into the fabric of lies and explosions, invented language and vile conspiracies, there’s the rather touching theme of people inventing one another by their expectations and generosities. All the positive characters begin in a place of hopelessness and grow into strength and optimism through the kindness of strangers. As Charlie says, “I think I’m acquiring a personality! . . . We—all of us, we’re becoming—we’re making one another complete, and alive, and – oh, I can’t explain.” It’s a sweet, classic comic brushstroke–community amid all the nuttiness.

This comedy is such a wacky hybrid of odd-ball misfits brought together in an outlandish place with a bizarre plot constructed to present high moral content embedded in the silliest of farce. My first thought as I read the script was, “This is from the Goon Shows.” Nowhere else in post-war comedy is there such a mad combination of these particular elements, vintage Michael Bentine, Spike Milligan Peter Sellers, and Harry Secombe.. But I was wrong. The Foreigner was written by an American, Larry Shue, and premiered in Milwaukee in 1983.

Larry Shue (1946 – 1985) was born in New Orleans and grew up in Kansas and Chicago. After college, he served in the entertainment division of the US Army during the Vietnam War. He returned, as an actor, to work dinner theatre in Washington, DC and Atlanta, Georgia. At age 31, he joined the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre where he remained as an actor and eventually became Playwright in Residence. He also is known as an actor from the long-running television soap opera, One Life to Live.

Shue’s professional life was really beginning to take off in the mid-1980s. His comedy The Nerd (1981) was hugely successful in London after opening in Milwaukee (now, there’s an odd link-up!). The Foreigner was a smash New York success (Despite the distain of the critics, the audience loved it!). Shue was in great demand as an actor and writer when he died in a commuter plane crash in September 1985. He was 39.

As if the Mulligan stew combination of British army. French demolitions, science fiction, backwoods Georgia, Christian satire, out-of-Wisconsin wasn’t enough, the central idea of the comedy was inspired by a visit to Japan! Shue studied with a theatre company in Japan in 1980. He had absolutely no grasp of Japanese social customs when he arrived. He was touched and amused to learn that the decorous Japanese would tolerate even his most bizarre behavior, accepting and forgiving inappropriate actions because he was an outsider, a foreigner. This episode gave him the idea for The Foreigner, in which tolerance of the outsider’s absurdities is the foundation of a little community coming together in comic kindness.

The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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