It is rare for a comedy to withstand the test of time. Characters become dated; jokes become cliche. However, more than three decades after its premier, The Foreigner continues to be an enduring favorite among theater-going audiences. So what is it that sets Larry Shue’s classic farce apart from its contemporaries?
There is something incredibly powerful in finding the ability to laugh in the face of the darkest aspects of humanity, and rather than shying away from the dark and the unseemly, The Foreigner treats those subjects to the mocking they so resoundingly deserve. In doing so, it reminds its audience that even in the most challenging of circumstances, there is still light and there is still love. Taken at face value, The Foreigner is a light-hearted comedy about an introvert being thrust into a series of absurd situations when he attempts to find peace and quiet at a fishing lodge in Georgia, but beneath the veneer of slapstick and stereotype, it is subtly combating prejudice—both the blatant hatred of its characters, as seen in Klansman Owen Musser, as well as the audience’s own preconceptions about the lodge’s residents. In any other medium, such an undertaking could easily become heavy-handed, but the charm and humor woven throughout the script allow it to address these eternally relevant concepts without being didactic or condescending to its audience.
Charlie Baker, the protagonist and eponymous foreigner, is the everyman through whom the audience can experience the unfiltered inner lives of the rest of the characters. Dismissed by those around him as incapable of understanding English, Charlie—frequently to his own chagrin—becomes the involuntary overseer of his companions’ secrets. Throughout the first act, this device sets up a number of expectations for the audience that the second act deftly dismantles. Doddering, uncultured Betty reveals herself to be quick-witted and astute; sarcastic and self-centered Catherine is also introspective and loving; gentle Ellard, who has always been assumed dim-witted by those around him, is surprisingly clever in his own way; and timid Charlie surprises himself and everyone around him by realizing how fearless he can truly be.
Encompassing these subtleties is a larger world of prejudice and greed, one that Charlie and his friends must combat once they have overcome their own personal conceits. But unlike smaller personal assumptions about intelligence or depth of character, there is no redeeming quality that will excuse or abate the deep-seated malevolence and violence we see in The Foreigner‘s villains, and so we must make them smaller, make them less threatening, by engaging in the one thing that will rob them of their power: We must laugh at them. The Foreigner subjects its antagonists to a level of absurdity equaled only by the absurdity of their own hatred, and in doing so it renders them ineffectual. That is, perhaps, the secret to The Foreigner‘s decades-long success: It reassures audiences that even the most insidious and contemptible forces can be overcome, and that when we do overcome them, it shall be joyous and filled with laughter.
(Written for Houston Family Arts Center’s upcoming production of The Foreigner.)