Reverb of the Native

If there were any real justice in the world, Larry Shue would be considered the greatest comedy writer of the American theater, and Neil Simon would be a ribbon clerk. Instead, professional stages the world over continue to groan under the weight of Simon's comedies, while Shue is--well, he's dead.

Before Larry Shue died in a plane crash in 1985, he was just getting going as an actor and a playwright. His best-known comedy, The Nerd, is typical of his best work, where entire worlds are created around literate, seemingly well-mannered people who end up in outrageous circumstances. His comedies are about how civilized societies can drift into obscene behavior, but mostly the plays are just funny, loaded with sight gags, slapstick, and deadpan dialogue.

Shue rarely gets produced anymore, except by dinner and community troupes like Tempe Little Theater, whose commendable production of Shue's The Foreigner should make it onto your must-see list.

The Foreigner is classic Shue, a soupçon of social commentary kept afloat by bountiful humor. Though some of his narrative variations are predictable, there are still plenty of plot twists and turns. I was surprised, the first time I saw this show, when the Ku Klux Klan showed up late in the second act, but Shue reconciles such tragic goings-on in his comedies by wrapping little horrors in buoyant, theatrical writing.

In this 1982 off-Broadway hit, the foreigner is Charlie Baker, a terminally shy British proofreader who's retreated to the States for a few days to escape his rocky marriage. He lands at a hunting lodge in a small Georgia town and, in order to avoid any interaction with the locals, has a friend introduce him as an immigrant who can't speak English. The zany locals--a rich girl, her shady minister boyfriend and her mentally challenged brother harass Charlie with their problems and eventually rook him into rescuing them from their sordid Southern lives.

The Foreigner plays like your standard farce, but there's plenty of social commentary and more than a few theatrical references for the savvy show-biz hound. One long scene, in which the mentally retarded boy Ellard (played magnificently by young Andrew Alexander) attempts to teach Charlie to speak English, is an ingenious spoof of the breakfast scene from The Miracle Worker. Ellard's dimwitted drawl provides the punchlines here, as he mauls the simplest words (eggs are "aaaaayggs"; you eat them with a "faw-wurk") in a loopy lesson plan that drew spontaneous applause from the opening night audience.

There are several such high points in the play. I want to say that Shue's plays are so well written that an actor can't help but succeed in them, but the truth is that it takes a well-seasoned cast to negotiate the intricacies of his plots. Director Robin LaVoie has knit her cast into a topnotch team, and elicited powerful solo turns from several players. Among them, Robert Daniels' Charlie is the best. He spends much of the evening mute, and his facile pantomimes are witty and graceful.

I admit I'd recently written off Tempe Little Theater. After faithfully attending this 27-year-old company's last three seasons, I'd dismissed them as unexciting and predictable. I was honestly dragging my feet on my way to The Foreigner, which I'd seen two perfect productions of in the past. Now I've seen three.

The Foreigner continues through Sunday, December 20, at Tempe Performing Arts Center, 132 East Sixth Street.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela