Larry Shue’s “The Foreigner” isn’t so much a comedy about mistaken identity as it is about convenient omission. The titular character is confused for someone he isn’t and chooses to play along with it. In assuming a role of an immigrant lost in translation, he learns about himself and the strangers around him.
The show, which is currently playing at Interplayers Theatre, is set in a fishing lodge outside of Atlanta in the early 1980s. Our protagonist is Charlie Baker, an unassuming British traveler who is distraught, he says, because his wife is wasting away in the hospital back at home. He tells his traveling companion Sgt. LeSueur, an explosives expert in the British Army, that he doesn’t want to speak to anybody in his fragile emotional condition, so LeSueur convinces the lodge’s owner that Charlie can’t speak a word of English.
That ploy works in two ways: Predictably, the other lodgers refrain from communicating with Charlie, but they also open up about themselves in front of him, under the assumption that he can’t understand what they’re saying.
“Charlie kind of wants to be anonymous at first,” said Carrie Morgan, the show’s director, “but he starts to play a little more and push the boundaries of his own life experience, because he’s always considered himself very boring and ordinary. I think he’s someone we all relate to at some point in our lives, where we think our life hasn’t been interesting enough. … He gets this fun opportunity to question his perceptions, as everyone else is looking at him with new eyes and he begins to see himself differently.”
“The Foreigner” tackles themes of judgment, conjecture and fidelity – Charlie’s beloved, ailing wife is cheating on him – but it’s a comedy above all else, and the humor evolves from the thorny complications of Charlie’s presumed identity. Morgan, who had barely more than two weeks of rehearsal with her cast, said Shue’s story served as a strong foundation upon which to develop the comedy.
“The script itself really works,” she said. “To some extent, I feel like it’s part of my job to stay out of the way. I’m not big on superimposing this alternative concept on a play that really works quite well on its own.”
Morgan, currently head of the theater department at the Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts, was invited to direct “The Foreigner” by Interplayers’ artistic director Reed McColm, and she brought with her a strong sense of character.
“I’m big on character work, coming from a real place as an actor and layering some of the character on top,” Morgan said. “We’ve done a fair amount of discussion that way and talking about what’s your world before you come onto the stage. That being said, they are broad characters, but I am much more interested in seeing characters than caricatures.”
The characters in “The Foreigner” are defined by their neuroses, hang-ups, prejudices and insecurities; by inserting them into a light caper plot, Shue has crafted a sneaky examination about how we look at ourselves and those around us. They might also, Morgan said, inspire someone to break away from the constraints of their humdrum existence.
“I hope that people do go, ‘I want to go play a little. I want to go live a little and question some of these assumptions about my life.’ I hope they talk a little about it afterwards, and I hope it makes them laugh.”