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The Foreigner

Jarring tones and wacky hijinks mark this odd, frequently quite funny play

Charlie (Blake R. York) and Ellard (Charlie Stevens) find innovative ways to communicate. Photo credit: Dennis K Photography

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In many ways, Tacoma Little Theatre's production of The Foreigner feels like a more light-hearted version of Martin McDonagh's work. Earlier this year, I reviewed TLT's staging of McDonagh's The Pillowman, and The Foreigner -- penned by Larry Shue -- shares with it a pattern of jarring tonal shifts and an overabundance of ideas. Among the themes presented by The Foreigner: racism, sexism, antisemitism, and gaslighting. That all of this is expressed in the form of a patently silly farce, heavy on pantomime and wordplay, is an intriguing juxtaposition that mostly works quite well.

Set in the ‘80s in rural Georgia, The Foreigner opens with Charlie (Blake R. York) and his military man buddy Froggy (Mikel Michener) arriving at a cabin for three restful days away from their troubles. It's here where Froggy breaks it to socially anxious Charlie that their vacation will involve being surrounded by several boisterous Southern strangers, and that Froggy won't actually be sticking around to serve as Charlie's wingman. After a panicked exchange where Charlie explains that he absolutely cannot stomach conversations with people, Froggy comes up with a novel idea: he explains to the other guests that Charlie comes from a mysterious, foreign land, can't speak a word of English, and only feels shame and inadequacy when others try to speak English to him. Problem solved!

It's a ludicrous, high concept setup for a zany comedy, which makes the moments of creeping reality an, at times, uncomfortable fit. Soon, Charlie is joined by flibbertigibbet Betty (Jen Aylsworth), the scheming pastor David (Cody Wyld Flower), his fiancée Catherine (Caiti Burke), and her brother Ellard (Charlie Stevens). While most of the people Charlie encounters, they predictably treat a non-English speaker like many others do: by shouting at him and hoping that an increase in volume will help him understand the language. From here on out, The Foreigner is a pretty straightforward farce, with Charlie adjusting to this odd situation, finding ways to communicate nonverbally (York is provided oodles of opportunities for top-notch physical comedy), quickly adapting his "foreigner" character to ingratiate himself in this group of oddballs.

Then a loud, virulent bigot shows up, in the form of Owen (Brian Cox), and it becomes clear that The Foreigner has a little more on its mind than wacky hijinks. No, the play doesn't dig too deeply into its ideas of the immigrant experience or racism in America, but when the Ku Klux Klan is being invoked, that's still a hell of a swerve from the door-slamming comedy of its first third. The ensemble is fantastic, particularly York, Stevens, and Michener, who share an easy chemistry (Michener, here, is returning to the TLT stage to reprise the role he played back in 2002). Ultimately, The Foreigner succeeds both because of, and in spite of, this tricky tone; there's not a shred of subtlety to be found, and the venom spewed by its hateful characters can be hard to take, but there's a winsome energy that carries the show. Directed by Casi Pruitt, The Foreigner is a frequently very funny, sometimes weirdly bracing oddity.

THE FOREIGNER, 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sept. 30, Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 North I St., Tacoma, $20-$25, 253.272.2281,

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