Comedic Skill in The Foreigner

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There is no question that Larry Shue was capable of making audiences laugh. Fellow playwright and actor Amlin Gray reported in A Book of Tributes that ‘‘one night in 1981, during the paper bag scene [in The Nerd], a man in the audience fell out of his seat, holding his sides against the laughter that he couldn’t stop, and rolled down three steps before he could recover.’’ Richard O’Donnell, a regional actor who had performed in both The Nerd and The Foreigner, reported in A Book of Tributes that ‘‘the people who came to see The Nerd laughed so hard that at times we [the actors on stage] broke the fourth wall and laughed out loud with them.’’ Even in Berlin, Germany, where the title of Shue’s The Nerd was translated into ‘‘Louse in a Fur Coat’’ (a proverbial constant irritant) Shue’s comedy left the audience ‘‘shrieking with laughter,’’ according to a review quoted in A Book of Tributes. In a Washington Post eulogy for the playwright, David Richards quoted John Dillon, artistic director of the Milwaukee Repertory Company during Shue’s tenure there, as simply saying, ‘‘his plays were always laugh machines.’’

Even Shue’s critics had to admit that they were tickled by his work. In her New Yorker review of The Foreigner Edith Oliver was clearly lukewarm in her response to the play. She found it ‘‘funny’’ but also ‘‘silly.’’ She asserted that the audience must take the premise of the play and ‘‘gulp it down.’’ However, she concluded with the statement, ‘‘I have no critical comment to make, unless expressing enjoyment can be considered criticism. I laughed start to finish at one comic surprise after another.’’ Three years later, while reviewing The Nerd, Oliver would admit that ‘‘the laughter, and not only my own [was] practically unceasing.’’

Though belly laughs are often seen by the general public as the very definition of great comedy, critics tend to consider uncontrollable laughter as a sign of an unsophisticated and unreflective response to a non-literary event. More cerebral twentieth century models for stage comedy would include Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov (Uncle Vanya), whose brilliant plays consistently straddle the line between the comic and serious, tending to elicit smiles rather than guffaws. Contemporary American playwright Neil Simon is the most commercially successful playwright of all time, but in the decades since his 1961 Broadway debut Simon has still not been able to convince critics that he is a ‘‘serious’’ comic dramatist. At the time of his death in 1985, Larry Shue’s unquestionable skill at creating uproarious laughter had already begun to pigeonhole him as a Neil Simon-like comic playwright— one capable of eliciting laughter but not of provoking serious thought.

To some extent, of course, very intense laughter from a theatrical audience can elicit a begrudging admission that something magical might be taking place on stage. In April of 1985, a critic for People Weekly wrote, ‘‘if you want the final word on The Foreigner, a wild farce by newcomer Larry Shue, listen to the audience packed into New York’s Astor Place Theatre. From start to finish the crowd yelps like hyenas.’’ And Shue himself, quoted in the same essay, gave testimony to the redemptive potential in raucous laughter: ‘‘You have tired, neurotic people filing in,’’ he stated, ‘‘and you have kids coming out—giggling and flirting.’’

The main trigger for belly laughs in the plays of Neil Simon or in many television sitcoms is the ‘‘one-liner,’’ a piece of dialogue that surprises the audience with an unexpected twist. For example, in Simon’s The Odd Couple, the poker...

(This entire section contains 1961 words.)

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players, after taking notice of Oscar’s broken refrigerator, ask the difference between the brown and green sandwiches that Oscar is serving. He says of the green, ‘‘it’s either very new cheese or very old meat.’’

Shue’s comedy is similarly fueled by scintillating one-liners. For example, in the first scene of The Foreigner, Froggy attempts to minimize the seriousness of Charlie’s wife ‘‘makin’ eyes at some bloke.’’ Froggy asks ‘‘where was it?’’ and Charlie answers, ‘‘the shower.’’ Froggy’s gentle questioning and the phrase, ‘‘making eyes,’’ suggests a certain timidity in Charlie’s wife, perhaps even some innocence (what kind of woman would marry a man like Charlie, after all?). The audience is led to expect that the worst-case scenario is probably a casual flirtation. However, with the image of rampant sexuality that follows, the audience has their expectations violently overturned and the result is raucous laughter.

Then, when Froggy discovers that Mary’s indiscretions were more than ‘‘one little dalliance,’’ he asks ‘‘’ow [how] many, then?,’’ and Charlie answers, ‘‘twenty-three.’’ This very large number places the infidelity in another category altogether. When Froggy expresses his disbelief, Charlie says, ‘‘quite true. Actors, writers. All the glamorous professions, you see. Criminals. . . . Veterinarians.’’ In this list of ‘‘glamorous professions’’ the word ‘‘veterinarians’’ jumps out as a particularly incongruous example and shocks the audience into yet another belly laugh.

But Shue’s comedy is not sustained merely by expert one-liners. Underneath nearly all the huge laughs is a genuine interest in what it means to be human. Take, for example, the wonderfully funny ‘‘breakfast scene’’ where Ellard has been directed by Betty to take no notice of Charlie. Ellard’s intense curiosity gets the best of him, however. As Shue comments in the stage directions, ‘‘Ellard’s idea of paying Charlie no mind is to stare at him as though he were a unicorn.’’ In the outrageously funny events that follow, it is easy to lose sight of the very powerful human dynamic at work in this scene.

Ellard’s spirit has been beaten down by years of low expectations, but he still cannot resist investigating this curious phenomenon in front of him. And Charlie, who has been similarly underestimated his whole life, has come to breakfast hoping to be left alone yet initiates the contact with Ellard. Charlie begins by smiling, perhaps out of nervousness, but the stage directions then specify that Charlie ‘‘picks up his fork, examines it, [and] frowns. He looks at Ellard, questioning.’’ This is the trigger for the entire breakfast scene, indeed for the play itself, and it is certainly not an idle gesture on Charlie’s part nor is it an arbitrary one in Shue’s dramaturgy. Does Charlie react to Ellard out of a genuine desire to create human contact? Or does he engages Ellard out of puckish love of play? Whatever Charlie’s motive, he belies in this gesture the selfdenigrating appraisal that he is ‘‘boring,’’ just as Ellard will belie to some extent the charge that he is ‘‘stupid.’’

Shue’s stage directions go on to specify that ‘‘Ellard looks back [to Charlie], almost responds, but decides not to. Can this stranger really not know what a fork is? No—better to mind one’s own business.’’ If Shue were merely interested in setting up and stringing together one-liners, this kind of sensitive writing would never appear in the play. Ellard tries to ignore Charlie, as he has been ordered to but it is impossible. Charlie begins imitating Ellard’s actions and soon the two are engaged in a mirror image of one another, a classic comic bit that comes alive in this scene because Shue is ultimately sensitive to the human psychology that lies beneath the laughter.

In a similar fashion, Shue creates a significant subtext for the scene in which Charlie humiliates the villainous Owen Musser. By this time in the play, the audience has clearly chosen sides. Owen is a creep and Charlie has become heroically clever— the farthest thing from a ‘‘boring’’ person. Charlie has begun to feel a sense of his own potential and just before Owen reenters, Charlie, alone with Froggy, realizes how easy his new sense of wit has become for him. Having survived Froggy’s challenge to tell a funny story, Charlie realizes that he might have ‘‘an idea’’ about how to save Betty and her friends from Owen and David. When Froggy leaves with the line, ‘‘I feel a bit like Doctor Frankenstein,’’ Charlie begins ‘‘pacing furiously,’’ saying to himself, ‘‘Frankenstein. Yes.’’

The resulting scene with Owen is very funny because Owen thinks he is in control when it is the brilliant but subtle Charlie who is in the driver’s seat. After Owen blasts Charlie with racist threats, Shue specifies that there be a pause before Charlie says, ‘‘brightly,’’ ‘‘Are you happy?’’ This apparent non-sequitur has all the force of a one-liner but its real power comes from the complexity of the dramatic moment. Charlie is setting up Owen’s destruction and the fullness of Charlie’s counterattack comes as a total surprise to the audience. Aware of Owen’s superstitious nature, Charlie will confound him with words just vague enough to seem capricious but so appropriately threatening in their mysterious way that the audience can revel in Owen’s intimidation and at the same time glory in Charlie’s discovery of personal power.

When Owen dismisses Charlie’s words as ‘‘jabberin’,’’ Charlie shifts gears: ‘‘Hello! Goodbye! One-two-three. (Owen snorts, looks away. Pause. Different tone.) I loook tru your bones. . . . Yes. Me see. Moon get beeg. You sleep—sleep out, out. All you skin—bye-bye. I come. I look tru your bones. . . . Gonna look into your bones, when de bees come down.’’ The humor here is based not merely on a shallow reversal of expectations but on a sense of justice and a celebration of human capabilities. Charlie has entered the play as an apparently incompetent human being, but he has since discovered powers he never knew he had. The audience laughs uproariously, in part because the comic villain has gotten his comeuppance, in part because the human potential for personal growth has been reaffirmed. Shue should not be confused with Shakespeare or Chekhov, but there is in this scene and many others in The Foreigner a dramatic texture that the belly laughs can often obscure.

In Laurie Winer’s 1988 article in the New York Times, director Jerry Zaks recalled that he ‘‘had never heard of Larry Shue’’ when producer Jack McQuiggan sent him a copy of The Foreigner in 1984. ‘‘I was completely knocked out by the effortlessness of the comic writing,’’ he stated. ‘‘It was one of those special plays where you can’t wait to see where it’s going, and you can’t believe that it’s as funny as it is.’’ The laughs, said Zaks, ‘‘invariably come out of situation and characters, and always in a wonderfully surprising way . . . when people walked out of that theatre they were dizzy. Every night, two or three hundred people went crazy in the basement of this building, and I remember thinking that if a visitor from another planet came and saw this, it would think something very powerful had been going on.’’

In his final tribute to his friend, Gray said that Shue ‘‘used conventional structures as springboards, and he used them very skilfully. But sometimes all the underpinnings would just drop away and there would be a passage like the paper bag scene in The Nerd or the breakfast scene in The Foreigner that lifted off into a sublime celebration of how silly and how lovely it is to be human. Now that Larry’s gone, nobody else will write these scenes, because nobody else knows how.’’ And Rose Pickering, an actress in the Milwaukee Repertory Company, perhaps summed Shue up the best: ‘‘he leaves behind a legacy in his plays, a legacy of laughter and gentle humanity that reassures all us misfits that we can fit in somewhere.’’

Source: Terry R. Nienhuis, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000. Nienhuis is a Ph.D. specializing in modern and contemporary drama.

Review of The Foreigner

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James Agee classified certain movies as ‘‘intelligent trash,’’ a category that he neither respected nor condemned, but recognized as having its uses. At a posh London party, Sarah Bernhardt was so overcome by all that staid propriety that she whispered to a French acquaintance, ‘‘Allons nous encanailler!’’ (‘‘Let’s go make pigs of ourselves!’’) In the theater, too, there is room for some slumming, which, I imagine, is what Larry Shue’s The Foreigner means to provide. After seeing this farce by the actorplaywright, I suspect that he is quite capable of writing intelligent trash for well-bred pigs to wallow in, as the play does, at times, rise to this level. Mostly, however; it is content to be unintelligent trash.

The Foreigner brings an unlikely pair of Englishmen—‘‘ Froggy’’ LeSueur, a boisterous corporal and demolition expert, and Charlie Baker, a timid, boring reserve officer, whose wife may be dying and is certainly cuckolding him, to Betty Meeker’s Fishing Lodge Resort in Tilghman County, the heart of Georgia darkness. Here the smooth Reverend David Marshall Lee and his rough pal, Owen Musser, are planning to take over, with the help of the Klan, today the lodge, tomorrow America. David is about to marry the pretty but somewhat benighted ex-debutante and heiress Catherine Simms, who has a semi-idiot brother, Ellard, and a fortune with which David and Owen plan to finance the takeover of what they propose to turn into White America. Because of his extreme shyness, which makes talking to strangers agonizing, Charlie is passed off as a foreigner having no English while Froggy goes off on some demolition job. Betty, the aging proprietress, the exploited and dimly suspicious postdeb, and the rather speculative half-wit are enormously taken with the cute ‘‘foreigner,’’ who, in turn, takes to being fussed over as any lamb would to being lionized.

Now, what prevents this farce—in which, typically, bumbling good overcomes cunning but fallible evil—from being intelligent trash is its utter implausibility. What makes good farce a valid art form is its keeping a firm grip on reality no matter how much its feet may slip on banana peels. In The Foreigner, however, people are stupid and inept beyond any relation to reality, except when they become, equally unbelievably, improbably clever or wise. And the author cannot even make his premise seem credible enough to support the airiest of fantasies. Furthermore, his wit, despite occasional flashes, goes into lengthy eclipses during which we seem to be viewing the proceedings through smoky glass. Take this line of Catherine’s to her brother: ‘‘You couldn’t catch a chipmunk if all his legs were broken and if he were glued to the palm of your hand.’’ This kind of line is trying too hard. Not feeling confident that it has scored with the broken legs, it huffs on to that sticky hand in the hope of clinching a laugh, and doesn’t get it in either place. Ellard replies, ‘‘I wouldn’t want him then,’’ which in its pseudologic is mildly amusing; but because the big yocks have failed to come, the answer makes us conjure up in all seriousness a broken-legged beastie, and the fun turns sour.

One main source of humor in the play is the language of the nonexistent country from which Charlie claims to hail. In this double-talk, he improvises everything from badinage to lengthy anecdotes, and Froggy must fall in with it, however clumsily. The word for ‘‘yes,’’ Charlie tells us, is ‘‘gok,’’ and the word for ‘‘no’’ is ‘‘blint"; otherwise, the lingo sounds mostly like pig Russian, and less funny than it could be. Rather more amusing is the rapid progress Charlie makes in English—as are also his recidivisms whenever it pays to act dumb— and the status of genius this confers upon him. Here the comedy is nicely abetted by a lovably ludicrous performance from Anthony Heald, who has a fine talent (as demonstrated also in Quartermaine’s Terms) for turning nerds into richly textured specimens insofar as this is humanly possible. That the author makes him, as he also does Ellard, in some ways too smart is not the actor’s fault.

There is good work from the entire cast, which includes Sudie Bond (who had trouble with her lines), Patricia Kalember (a perfectly befogged yet sunny southern belle), Robert Schenkkan (a whited supremacist sepulcher), Kevin Geer (a nitwit quite witty in the nitty-gritty), Christopher Curry (a redneck sweaty under the collar), and the author, Larry Shue (whose Froggy is an unusually convincing portrait of a lower-class Englishman by an American actor). Karen Schulz’s set, though quite adequate, bears a spine-tingling resemblance to that of Moose Murders, thus arousing expectations that no play, perhaps, can fulfill. Rita Ryack’s costumes and Paul Gallo’s lighting are highly professional, and Jerry Zaks, himself a funny actor, has directed for easygoing drollery rather than frantic farce, which would have been right had the material met him halfway. In short: the production, gok; the play, blint.

Source: Edith Oliver, review of The Foreigner in the New Yorker, Vol. 60, November 19, 1984, pp. 187–88.

If the Shue Doesn’t Fit

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‘‘The Foreigner,’’ by (and with) Larry Shue, at Astor Place, is a silly, funny farce, for Shue has a truly humorous and jokey mind and the knack of turning a phrase. A British Army officer, a demolitions expert, comes to an inn in Georgia on some assignment or other, bringing with him a friend called Charlie, whom he must leave there from time to time. Charlie, a shy man, is overcome by panic at the thought of having to make conversation with strangers, so, to protect him, the officer tells the proprietress of the inn that Charlie is a foreigner unable to understand English, much less speak it. That is the premise (and basic joke) of the play, and what you do is place it on the tip of your tongue and gulp it down. Just when Charlie, alone, has decided to confess to the hoax, a sinister, two-faced minister enters, and down the stairs rushes his pretty fiancée to announce that she is pregnant. Loud, intimate conversation follows, and suddenly she notices Charlie, head in hands, and raises hell. Proprietress reassures her that Charlie can understand nothing. In the course of the action, Charlie overhears quite a lot—there is villainy and skulduggery afoot, but the villains take no notice of him whatever. Since surprise is the essence of farce, you’ll get no more from me, except that at the end the villains are thwarted, the Ku Klux Klan is turned back, and everybody good lives happily ever after.

I have no critical comment to make, unless expressing enjoyment can be considered criticism. I laughed start to finish at one comic surprise after another. Anthony Heald, that fine young actor, appeared to be having the time of his life as Charlie, and so did the late, adorable Sudie Bondas the credulous, rapt proprietress, Kevin Geer as a dimwitted handyman, Robert Schenkkan as the shifty clergyman, Patricia Kalamber as the fiancée, and Mr. Shue as the British Army officer. Jerry Zaks was the quick-witted director.

Source: John Simon, ‘‘If the Shue Doesn’t Fit’’ in New York, Vol. 17, November 12, 1984, pp. 135–36.


Critical Overview