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STAGE REVIEW : Play Deserves and Gets the Last Laugh : Theater: ‘The Foreigner’ is such a funny play that it produces laughs even in the North Coast Repertory’s sadly lacking production.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Larry Shue’s “The Foreigner” is as close to a foolproof comedy as one is likely to find.

Which is why it gets as many laughs as it does despite a decidedly disappointing production at the North Coast Repertory Theatre, now through Nov. 9.

This much-produced show, in at least its fourth outing in San Diego (most recently by Lamb’s Players Theatre), starts with a deliciously funny premise. Charlie Baker, a shy, nerdish fellow whose wife cheated on him 23 times (Charlie keeps count), is deposited in an inn in rural Georgia for recuperation by an old army buddy.

When he panics at the idea of conversing with strangers, his friend, Froggy, concocts a story about Charlie being a foreigner who doesn’t know any English so that everyone will leave him alone. But instead of leaving him alone, the people examine him, confide in him and talk in front of him, telling him secrets he could get in trouble for knowing.

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The script is overflowing with sure-fire jokes and comic situations.

But delivering the laughs requires precision timing, pacing, a sense of where the jokes are and a broad, colorful portrayal of the characters.

Director Jean Hauser, a one-time staff director with the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company, hasn’t got a clue. She slows down the action, making this the longest “Foreigner” on record, the actors don’t set up the punch lines, and the entire ensemble walks around with pensive expressions as if in an Ibsen play.

The only possible explanation for all the laughter on opening night is that people have not seen the show before. And, Ron Choularton, one of North Coast’s true finds, shows a flair for physical comedy that brings something new and fresh to the part of Charlie.

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It makes the failures of this production doubly frustrating.

One of the first jokes--a visual one--is the spoon collection by inn-owner Betty Meeks (Pat DiMeo). The very idea of a woman collecting and prizing 20 or 30 spoons and getting excited when Froggy (Robert Larsen) brings her a new one that’s “made in Taiwan” is funny. Unless, as in this production, there are only six spoons spaced widely apart on the inn wall.

Another joke is the rural Georgia accents. Ellard (Phillip Stafford), the half-wit brother of ex-deb Catherine, tries to “teach” Charlie English. He is supposed to say “fork” in a drawl that makes the word sound as if it has two syllables. “Fah-wak,” he says, coaching Charlie to repeat after him. “Two parts.”

He may say that fork is said in “two parts,” but we’re only hearing one as he utters it--perhaps one and a half if you want to count generously. Someone should be teaching this Ellard a Georgia accent. Actually, someone should be teaching the whole cast such accents.

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Then there’s ex-deb Catherine (Dana Hooley), a wealthy heiress who is supposed to look amusingly out of place--smart, sassy and dressed inappropriately for this backwoods town. But instead she looks like an earth mother, sometimes barefoot or wearing sandals, her hair pouring loosely down her back as if she were a refugee from the Sixties.

The North Coast Rep proved it is capable of professional work with its last production, Hugh Whitemore’s tragic “Breaking the Code.” The care that went into each characterization there should have been applied here. Clearly for this company, dying is easy, comedy is hard.

Even Ocie Robinson’s usually fine set work founders. There is nothing funny on these walls. Robinson’s lighting, too, is a joke--but not the kind you want. The window is dark even in the daytime. When the electricity is cut, the lights don’t even flicker, much less go out.

Michael Shapiro’s sound design can’t conjure a convincing clap of thunder or rain or explosions or menacing footsteps to build up to the tensions of the final scene. John-Bryan Davis, whose costumes and wigs can usually be relied on for quality, not only fails to give us a well-coiffed Catherine, he doesn’t create anything memorable or witty for any of the other characters.

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Shue, deserves better. The playwright who, at 39, died in a commuter plane crash in Virginia in 1985, only finished two works--"The Foreigner” and “The Nerd"--before his death, but these two alone have made him a lasting name.

In 1984, Shue said the characters in “The Foreigner” and “The Nerd” contained an element of his own personality that he called “my dream that the wishy-washy nice guy will emerge triumphant.”

That touching undercurrent along with Shue’s infectious sense of fun make his plays at least semi-indestructible. “The Foreigner” does not get its due at the North Coast Rep. At least half the jokes are muffed. But thanks to Shue’s script, even in a mishandled, misunderstood production, the show bubbles up with more fun than many other plays would after being staged and performed impeccably.

“THE FOREIGNER”

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By Larry Shue. Director is Jean Hauser. Set and lighting by Ocie Robinson. Costumes and wigs by John-Bryan Davis. Sound by Michael Shapiro. With Robert Larsen, Ron Choularton, Pat DiMeo, Roy Guenther Werner, Dana Hooley, Michael Pieper and Phillip Stafford. At 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays with Sunday matinees at 2 through Nov. 9. Tickets are $12-14. At Lomas Santa Fe Plaza, Solana Beach, 481-1055. On Family Theatre Days, Oct. 6 and 13, a child from 10-18 gets in free when an adult buys a half-price $7 ticket at the Times Arts Tix booth in Horton Plaza.


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