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THEATER REVIEW : ‘Foreigner’ Hits Nerves, Funny Bones : Larry Shue’s comedy about a shy Englishman plays on our country’s growing fear of immigrants.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Don’t check your brains at the door to the Pasadena Playhouse if you drop by for “The Foreigner.” More than escapism motivates the foolishness in Larry Shue’s comedy about a neurotically shy Englishman’s masquerade. Underneath its silly surface lie serious lessons about tolerance, cultural diversity, and our growing fear of immigrants.

This subtext may explain why “The Foreigner” has been produced so frequently since its off-Broadway premiere in 1984. It hits a national nerve while numbing us with laughing gas.

But if we pause to ponder its buried themes, as director Tom Alderman does in Pasadena, our intellect starts examining the plot. When we do, Shue’s cleverness transforms into contrivance and our laughter ends. Instead of farce, Pasadena’s “Foreigner” becomes a well-intentioned drawing-room comedy. Fortunately, this is an ensemble capable of overwhelming many of the production’s distractions.

Steve Vinovich is the endearing “foreigner” taking a brief vacation from England to a rustic fishing lodge in Georgia. Although his birth name, Charlie Baker, sounds All-American, he’s scared of Americans. In fact, Charlie is terrified of all people.

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“Even idle conversation terrifies me,” he admits to his close friend, British army officer Froggy LeSueur (the smartly stiff-upper-lip Stephen Mendel). When Charlie realizes that the lodge has other guests--"Strangers?!"--he panics.

How to make these three days among backwoods strangers tolerable to the Brit? LeSueur devises a strategy. He tells the lodge’s owner, Betty Meeks (a delicious Julianna McCarthy), that “Cha-Oo-Lee” can’t speak English and is on a secret government mission. In fact, no one must speak to the foreigner because it “shames him.”

This plan not only satisfies Charlie, it provides a safe exploration of “the Other.” By speaking an invented language, and observing others talking openly as if he’s not there, Charlie finds the freedom to discover a new self.

“What an adventure I’ve been having,” he confides to Froggy. “I think I’m acquiring a personality.”

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That personality is a clown. Vinovich’s resemblance to Robin Williams is emphasized while he portrays a fool improvising eccentric gags and language games. But Vinovich carefully maintains his clowning at a low-key level, making Charley’s emergence believable and emotionally cathartic.

His work is impressively supported by an excellent ensemble. Joanna Daniels is captivating as the lovely lodger with low self-esteem who becomes Charley’s romantic interest. Morgan Rusler is inspired as her slightly retarded, backward brother. Matt Walker is shrewdly “off” as the minister with a hidden agenda. And Scott Jaeck’s ominous good-old-boy impressively walks a believable circle around his potential caricature.

But the excellent ensemble is forced to move at a languid Southern pace, deadly for a wanna-be farce. Director Alderman cautiously emphases each plot point, many of which don’t pay off. The lodge is about to be condemned, but the danger never materializes as a genuine threat. (Perhaps this is due in part to Karen Schultz’s gingerbread-house set, which makes the lodge seem flimsy and two-dimensional.)

When the Ku Klux Klan emerges as a force, Alderman’s approach suddenly makes sense. The tone abruptly shifts. Intolerance is given a human face as “the most powerful Christian force on Earth” threatens to “clean” America of “dummy boys, black boys, Jew boys.” Mistaken identity is no longer a laughing matter.

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Too often, neither is Pasadena’s “The Foreigner.”

* “The Foreigner,” The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m., Saturdays, 5 p.m. and 9 p.m., Sundays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 24. $31.50. (818) 356-PLAY, (213) 480-3232. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Stephen Mendel: “Froggy” LeSueur

Steve Vinovich: Charlie Baker

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Julianna McCarthy: Betty Meeks

Matt Walker: Rev. David Marshall Lee

Joanna Daniels: Catherine Simms

Scott Jaeck: Owen Musser

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Morgan Rusler: Ellard Simms

A Pasadena Playhouse Production in association with Theatre Corp. of America. By Larry Shue. Directed by Tom Alderman. Set by Karen Schultz. Lights by J.A. Reedquist. Costumes by Garland Riddle. Sound by Ken Huncovsky. Production Stage Manager Theresa Bentz. Stage Manager Diana Blazer.


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