Anyone reading the reviews for the off-Broadway premiere of Larry Shue's The Foreigner might reasonably have expected it to flop. John Simon, in typical nasty fashion, condemned the play as “mostly . . . unintelligent trash” (“If the Shue Doesn't Fit,” New York, 12 Nov. 1984: 135). Frank Rich, in similar vein, called it “preposterous” and “hardly worth the effort” (“Stage: Anthony Heald in 'Foreigner,'” The New York Times, 2 Nov., 1984: C3). While such criticisms initially had a dampening effect on ticket sales, audiences had the final say: the production enjoyed a run of 686 performances over two years, and eventually won two Obie (off-Broadway) awards (Richard E. Kramer, “The Power of the Reviewer: Myth or Fact?” Theatre History Studies 18 : 29).
So why has The Foreigner been so successful despite savage reviews and implausible plot elements? Clive Barnes attributed this “triumph” over the critics to “good old-fashioned word of mouth” (quoted in Kramer, 29). Shue credited the play's success to its beneficent effect on the playgoers: “You have tired neurotic people filing in and you have kids coming out giggling and flirting” (WLA Literary Awards Committee, “Larry Shue, 1946-1985,” 1991 Notable Wisconsin Authors 18 Dec. 2004 Wisconsin Library Association, Inc. 28 Dec. 2004, http://www.wla.lib.wi.us/lac/notable/1991notable.htm). But this effect is due not merely to funny one-liners; Amlin Gray-a friend and colleague of Larry Shue at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater-explains, “In Larry's plays, you felt his sweetness of nature, the speed of his intelligence, the breadth of his tolerance and his love of people. Even when there is a satirical edge to his work, there is no cruelty” (quoted in Damien Jaques, “Lasting Laughs,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 16 Nov. 2003: E1).
While The Foreigner is undeniably funny, it is not without substance. Shue tackles serious issues in this farce, bigotry chief among them. Reaction to Charlie, the “foreigner” in the play, varies from character to character. Betty Meeks, whose dreams of travel to distant lands have almost died, greets Charlie with enthusiasm: a representative of those distant lands has dropped into her lodge like manna from heaven. Catherine, though initially suspicious, eventually adopts him as friend and confidant. Ellard thinks Charlie odd, but decides to make the newcomer his protégé. However, Betty and Catherine are so tolerant that they accept and even encourage outrageous behavior. When Betty finds Charlie participating in a game of “monkey see, monkey do” with Ellard, she assumes this is a custom in Charlie's country, and chastises Ellard for ridiculing him. Tolerance also leads them into gullibility-neither Betty nor Catherine questions Charlie's rapid acquisition of the English language under Ellard's tutelage.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are Owen, David, and their confederates in the Ku Klux Klan, which David prefers to call “a good Christian hunt club” (Larry Shue, The Foreigner, Nelson Doubleday, Inc.: Garden City, NY, 1985: 44). Owen, from whom hatred emanates like a stench, smiles while launching a verbal attack against Charlie, who supposedly doesn't understand English. Although the Reverend David Marshall Lee's antipathy is better concealed, his bigotry is just as intense. When Catherine or Betty is around, he assumes the appearance of Christian love for his fellowman, but this mask gradually slips and is ultimately discarded when David reveals his intent to “[wipe] this nation clean of . . . people like [Charlie]” (136).
Shue sets up the characters of Charlie and David as polar opposites. Although there is a superficial similarity, with each hiding behind a false persona, their motives and actions are worlds apart. Whereas Charlie's deception arises due to painful shyness, David's originates in ambition and hatred. Whereas Charlie is inherently kind, David is criminally selfish.
The reverend has no concern for the lives he destroys in his quest to preside over the Georgia chapter of the “Invisible Empire” (74). He callously undermines Ellard's relationship with his sister and tries to bulldoze Catherine into marriage; he conspires to defraud Betty of her property and Catherine and Ellard of their inheritance.Charlie, on the other hand, assumes his disguise reluctantly, then puts it to good use by frustrating David's plans and repairing damage wherever he is able. He brightens Betty's humdrum existence, and helps her forget her troubles. As Betty puts it, “with Charlie around, ye jest sorta ferget about the bad things, don't ye?” (80). With Charlie's help, Ellard is transformed in Catherine's eyes from half-wit to talented ESL instructor and proficient handyman (102). And having observed David's sabotage of Ellard, Charlie applies those same techniques to Owen and humiliates the Klansman until hatred for the foreigner overbalances allegiance to David's plans.
In rescuing the others, Charlie also helps himself. When Charlie makes his entrance in the first act, Shue describes him as “quietly, somehow permanently, lost” (4). Charlie accepts as inescapable truth his wife's assessment of him: “shatteringly, profoundly-boring” (7). He wants badly to “acquire personality” but doesn't think it's possible, and wishes he were “able to tell a funny story. To arouse laughter. Anger. Respect. To be thought-wise” (7). Conversation with others, even in his native language, is painful and nearly impossible. Charlie doesn't need to travel to another country to feel like a foreigner-he feels out of place wherever he goes, sees himself as the one grey spot in an otherwise brightly colored world.
In pretending to be Cha-Oo-Lee, the interesting foreigner, Charlie does not so much re-invent himself as allow his inner butterfly to escape the staid, gray cocoon in which he has hidden for so long. In his efforts to extricate his new friends from their problems, he finds he has become “a raconteur,” “confessor,” and “prize pupil.” He arouses laughter and anger beyond his wildest expectations, and gains the respect of his friends.
Playwright Larry Shue “admitted that parts of him could be found in his prototype characters. . . . He referred to [his] 'dream that the wishy-washy nice guy will emerge triumphant'” (Jaques), a dream which is certainly fulfilled in The Foreigner. Charlie tries to explain to Froggy his sense of awakening: “We-all of us, we're becoming-we're making one another complete, and alive” (95). Such optimism and hope are difficult to confine within the walls of a theatre, and audience members tend to leave with some stashed in their pockets and their hearts, which is perhaps the real reason The Foreigner triumphs over cynics and theatre critics alike.