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Foreign Affairs

Germantown reprises Larry Shue's The Foreigner.

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Larry Shue, a 39-year-old actor and playwright, was well on his way to having a brilliant career when his commuter plane crashed in 1985, killing everybody on board. As a performer, he was acting in plays from New York to L.A. and appearing regularly on One Life To Live. As a comedy writer, he'd found success off-Broadway with his play The Foreigner, and his follow-up, The Nerd, was Broadway-bound. Shortly before his death, Disney tapped Shue for several projects, including a film adaptation of The Foreigner. The screenplay was never completed, and Disney never made the film. But The Foreigner didn't disappear down the memory hole. It ran through regional and community theaters like a nasty cold. It has visited Memphis on countless occasions, having been produced by virtually every company in town. Last Friday's opening marked the fourth revival of The Foreigner at Germantown Community Theatre. According to director Jo Malin's program notes, there was a general public demand for the show's return.Why in the world?

The Foreigner looks like cake: the easiest play in the world to produce. But it's a bit of a high-wire act for performers. Set up like a TV sitcom-- real Three's Company stuff minus the witty banter and zinging one-liners -- its broadly drawn characters threaten to explode into full-blown cultural stereotypes at any moment. Action and drama are replaced by improbable games of mistaken identity, which gives Shue's play an appealing, nearly improvisational quality. The Foreigner's chief villain is a cartoon Klansman, so the message "Nobody's like anybody" -- if you can call that a message -- isn't subtle. In the right hands, however, it can be a sweet, fun ride through the prettiest parts and most desolate reaches of the Georgia boondocks.

Poor Charlie Baker is a boring old Brit. He's spent the last 24 years sitting behind a boring gray copy-editor's desk, reading science fiction and generally boring everyone he comes into contact with, especially his wife who's been looking for an excuse to get rid of him for a while. Charlie is acutely aware of his terminal boringness, and the possibility of being lured into any conversation brings on nasty panic attacks. His concerned friend Froggy arranges for a peaceful American vacation, setting his nervous friend up in a Georgia hunting lodge. Froggy tells everyone that his friend is a foreigner who speaks no English, but the plan backfires. Nobody thinks twice about dishing his or her secrets in front of a foreigner, and so a zany farce, which begins with a sweet Chaplinesque pantomime and ends with a failed lynching by the KKK, is set into motion.

Actor John Rone, who wowed GCT audiences twice last season -- first as Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock's Last Case and later as the haunted lead in The Woman in Black -- is taking his fourth stab at the role of Charlie. His grasp on the role's requirements are, needless to say, firm, and he fleshes out his character with wonderful physical detail. But Rone's performance seems overly declamatory, and at times he can't quite connect with many of the other actors -- or else the other actors can't quite connect with him.

Mick Vinson is eerily convincing as Owen Musser, a no-account redneck who, though as dumb as a barrel of monkey hair, has used his Klan connections to enter the political arena. Taking advantage of Charlie's perceived handicap, Owen delights in saying the most horrible things he can. For sheer creepiness, however, Chris Cotton outdoes him. The fresh-faced actor plays the Rev. David Marshall Lee -- a swindler and bigot of the first order -- as a true lover and an earnest man of God. Even after his dark side is revealed Cotton pours on the scrubbed-heartland smarm, making his character thoroughly despicable. As his rich fiancée and intended victim, Amy George is feisty, sweet, and sympathetic.

The big question: With so much going for it, why does GCT's production of The Foreigner seem to drag on and on? Some of the responsibility rests with Rone who has evolved his already depressed character into a whining sad sack of such epic proportions that he's almost impossible to root for at times. Perhaps if Rone -- who really does have some wonderful moments -- could pick up the pace and temper his Eeyore with a little Woody Allen, things might finally start to click.

Through June 5th

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