Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Milwaukee Rep presents "The Foreigner"

The most I've laughed at the theater, period. 

I hardly even know where to begin with The Foreigner except to say that I've never laughed so freely at a play. OnMilwaukee called it "one of the funniest plays you may ever see," and they're so right. And what's more, the Milwaukee Rep itself premiered this play in 1983, so this is, in a way, a sort of homecoming — and Milwaukee was ready for it. Since its 1983 premier, The Foreigner has been widely produced, once even starring Matthew Broderick off-Broadway. 

The Foreigner is the story of a stodgy Brit named Charlie who comes to the States to stay in a fishing lodge for the weekend. Charlie is woefully introverted and boasts a self-proclaimed lack of personality — a sort of human Eeyore. He tells his friend Froggy that he really doesn't want to interact with the other folks at the lodge. So Froggy tells the lodge owner, Betty, that Charlie is a foreigner who can't speak English, and that no one should bother talking to him. Great plan — until Charlie overhears sensitive info and villainous plots. Charlie must "learn" English quickly — and glean a little personality along the way — to help his newfound friends. 

It was evident almost immediately that Larry Shue's play is a crowd favorite and that lots of folks were anticipating the hilarity. The audience at the Rep's Quadracci Powerhouse last Friday was in stitches from the very start — like when Charlie says "I've often wondered, how does one acquire personality?" A lone woman at the back of the theater let out a hysterical burst of laughter, and the whole room followed suit. It's true — laughter really is contagious.

It helps that Charlie is played by Matt Zambrano, whose delivery is just about perfect. Charlie spends a great deal of time as a silent observer, communicating only through facial expressions and physical comedy (cue dying of laughter). And when Charlie finally starts to speak in his made-up native language and eventually "learns" English, Zambrano's performance gets even better. I'd love to go back to The Foreigner for a second time just to watch him in action. 

While the entire cast deserves a standing ovation, I have to give a shout out to Linda Stephens and James Pickering (as Betty and Froggy), whose rapport is a sheer delight. But Brendan Meyer as Ellard came close to stealing the show for me. Ellard is slow-witted, unabashedly childlike, and eager to befriend the foreigner. Meyer plays the part with such gusto and adorable naivet√©, my heart hurts and my sides ache just thinking about it. I really can't get these remarkable ("re-mark-a-ble!") performances out of my head.

While the tone of The Foreigner is overall a light and hilarious one, it's not without a healthy nod to the Milwaukee Rep's mission to "provoke and inspire meaningful dialogue." While some characters, like Ellard and Betty, are enchanted by the idea Charlie, there are others who despise foreigners and are downright nasty. I don't want to spoil anything, but let's just say that the prejudice found in The Foreigner is incredibly timely given the rhetoric in our country post-election. It's frightening and sad, and though this play doesn't solve anything, I hope it will be food for thought for some and a much-needed escape for others. Sometimes, laughter really is the best medicine. 

The Foreigner is playing at the Milwaukee Rep now through December 18th. Information and tickets at

1 comment:

  1. So true regarding the political relevance of this play! As usual you perfectly reviewed a perfect performance.