Critical Overview

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The initial production of The Foreigner at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre (Milwaukee, Wisconsin) on January 13, 1983, was a huge success. The local audience was familiar with Shue’s work, and this new play did not disappoint them. When the play moved to the Astor Place Theatre, an Off-Broadway venue in New York City, on November 1, 1984, the production was directed by Jerry Zaks, and Shue himself played the role of ‘‘Froggy’’ LeSueur, with Anthony Heald as Charlie Baker. Heald was widely acclaimed in the title role, even by critics who disliked the play. Later in the run, when Heald took a leave of absence, Shue himself played the role of Charlie.

In a series of ‘‘preview’’ performances before the official opening night, New York audiences found the play as hilarious as their Wisconsin counterparts. And one evening, after the show offi- cially opened, the boiler in the basement of the theatre burst, sending the audience outside into a freezing rain, though the playgoers refused to leave until the boiler problem was temporarily rectified and they had a chance to see the second act. The overwhelmingly positive audience response to The Foreigner led the show’s producers to make plans to transfer the production to a Broadway theatre.

But then the critics came to review the show; reviews were less than kind. In the words of Samuel G. Freedman in a New York Times article entitled, ‘‘A Play Survives against the Odds,’’ the critic found the plot ‘‘preposterous even for a farce.’’ Though they recognized that the play generated tremendous laughter, the critics distrusted the audience response and considered the play shallow. Writing for the New York Daily News, Douglas Watt called The Foreigner ‘‘an unpalatable hash.’’ He found the play’s situations and plot contrivances arbitrary and strained, its characters stereotypical and cliched. He grudgingly admitted that ‘‘though his story is ridiculous, Shue does get off a few funny lines.’’

The highly influential Frank Rich, writing for the New York Times, called Shue’s play ‘‘labored’’ with a ‘‘preposterous plot’’ based on an ‘‘incredible premise,’’ altogether an ‘‘inane recipe.’’ And John Simon wrote in New York that Shue’s play was ‘‘unintelligent trash’’ based on ‘‘utter implausibility.’’ Clive Barnes of the New York Post was a little more kind, finding the play only ‘‘somewhat flawed, and poised curiously in the disputed territory between comedy and farce.’’ Barnes called the central premise of the play ‘‘alien corn,’’ and he considered the play itself ‘‘an only sporadically hilarious tale of unlikely shenanigans.’’ John Beaufort of the Christian Science Monitor dismissed the play with only the mild rebuke that ‘‘accepting Charlie’s adventures, even at their farcical value, demands more than a willing suspension of disbelief.’’

Not surprisingly, this critical response in the media hurt attendance of The Foreigner and a week after the official opening of the play its success was further complicated when the actress playing Betty died and had to be replaced. After the euphoria of the previews, the producers now had to consider closing the show and taking a financial loss. As Freedman recalled, ‘‘business, which had been solid during previews, immediately plummeted. In its first full week, the show grossed $9,881, well below its break-even point of $23,000. The show’s cash reserve went to cover losses. A closing notice was posted backstage.’’

However, the company members believed in the play and took pay cuts, distributed flyers in Times Square, and met with theatre groups to revive the word of mouth the previews had initially created. Over 80,000 lapel buttons were made to advertise the show, and The Foreigner was finally...

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saved by a Texas oil millionaire who saw the play, found it hilarious, and invested $60,000 in the production until the word of mouth could generate another steady audience for it. Eventually, all of these measures succeeded, the audiences returned in large numbers, and the play enjoyed an unusually long Off-Broadway run.The Foreigner was eventually awarded an Outer Critics Circle Award for best Off- Broadway play and productions began sprouting up all over the country. Also named one of the best plays in the regional theatre repertoire by the American Theatre Critics Association, the play even attracted the Disney empire, which bought the film rights and hired Shue to write the script.

When Shue’s plane crashed, ending his personal dreams for a long playwrighting career, The Foreigner was a solid commercial success. Well over a decade later, the play still generates numerous high school, community, university, and regional theatre productions each year. Reviewing a 1999 community theatre production in Salt Lake City, Utah, Claudia Harris declared that The Foreigner ‘‘is a staple of regional and community theatre that has not worn out its welcome.’’ The capacity of The Foreigner to rouse tremendous laughter has not diminished with the passage of time.


Essays and Criticism