By Don Leavitt
I love The Foreigner. From the moment I read the script—as a pie-eyed senior in high school experiencing Larry Shue for the very first time—I sensed something magical about the play. It was laugh-out-loud funny, of course, but it also offered a poignancy and a relevancy that seemed both intelligent and . . . not. There was a silliness to the play—even, as some early critics suggested, a preposterousness—that defied common sense; but it was funny, dammit, and more human in its absurdity than anything theatrical I had read in a long time.
I first wrote about The Foreigner for the Utah Shakespeare Festival back in 2005, and at the time, I steered clear of my personal feelings about the play. Instead, I stuck with a purely academic overview, offering a brief synopsis, a brief history of the playwright, and a memorial of sorts for Shue, who died tragically in a 1985 plane crash at the age of 39. It was well-written and not at all engaging, but it was an easy write, taking maybe two hours from start to finish.
Today, I find myself struggling to put thoughts to paper. Thirteen years have passed since that earlier essay, and, in that time, the world has changed. This year, the Festival produces the enduring comedy in an era of extremism that seems to be touching every aspect of the human experience. The debate about immigration is only one example, but it is certainly one of the loudest. It isn’t just the fierceness of the debate, or the bombastic tone with which it is debated—it is the polarity of positions and opinions that strains reason. Watching politicians, pundits and late-night comedians prattle on about who said what, who’s desirable, what’s American and what isn’t is like watching an intense tug-of-war that you sense has crossed from innocent fun, and you watch with baited breath, quite sure that someone’s going to get hurt.
In such an environment, it is tempting to take The Foreigner too seriously. I could hold the play aloft like a banner of artistic superiority and proclaim it an indictment of discrimination and anti-immigration rhetoric. I found myself writing very serious sentences about the state of the world and the juxtaposition of The Foreigner and its farcical tone against a political landscape that has become absolutely absurd in how seriously it takes itself. I got bogged down somewhere between brilliance and inanity—hoist on my own petard, as the saying goes—and absolutely hated every word of it.
Desperate for inspiration, I decided to read the play again and found myself laughing hard at the silliness of it all. And suddenly, I remembered—The Foreigner is supposed to be funny! It is silly, and chaotic, and utterly absurd, and by the end of every production I’ve ever seen my sides have ached from laughing. For thirty-five years now, audiences of The Foreigner around the world have been united in one thing—raucous, almost hysterical laughter.
The play’s ability to elicit this kind of laughter has not been lost on critics, many of whom have dismissed the play as “preposterous even for a farce.” In an April 1985 review in People Weekly, the writer noted, “If you want the final word on The Foreigner . . . listen to the audience packed into New York’s Astor Place Theatre. From start to finish the crowd yelps like hyenas” (“Audiences Have Taken a Shine to Playwright Larry Shue,” [People Weekly, April 8, 1985], 123).
What first struck me about the play was Shue’s ability to take very serious, very ugly topics—the Ku Klux Klan, hate, xenophobia, infidelity, anxiety, debilitating shyness, extra-marital pregnancy, mental deficiency—and turn them into things we could laugh at without trivializing them. Shue seemed keenly aware of the difficulties of life that touch all of us, and he wasn’t afraid to face them, or laugh at them; The Foreigner invites us to laugh along with him. The Foreigner reminds me that sometimes the best response to difficulty is a blast of gibberish and a hearty belly laugh, as demonstrated at the play’s end:
BETTY: (shakes her head) Well—real life’s awful hard sometimes.
FROGGY: It is, Bet. It is that. (Toasting.) Blasny, blasny.
BETTY: Blasny, blasny. (They drink as the lights fade out.)
The power to invoke “very intense laughter” from difficult situations comes from the use of the one-liner, according to Terry R. Nienhuis, Ph.D., an English professor at Western Carolina University specializing in modern and contemporary drama. In an essay on Shue’s comedic skills, Nienhuis defines the one-liner as “a piece of dialogue that surprises the audience with an unexpected twist.” He points to the opening scene, as Charlie is telling Froggy about his wife’s infidelity: “Froggy attempts to minimize the seriousness of Charlie’s wife ‘makin‘ eyes at some bloke,’” Nienhuis writes. “Froggy asks ‘where was it?’ and Charlie answers, ‘the shower’ . . . The audience is led to expect that the worst-case scenario is probably a casual flirtation. However, with the image of rampant sexuality that follows, the audience has their expectations violently overturned and the result is raucous laughter” (Drama for Students, Gale, 2000; reprinted at www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/foreigner#H).
Shue deftly uses one-liners to make difficult situations appear absurd, but it only works because Shue respects his characters as people, even the nasty ones. “Shue’s comedy is not sustained merely by expert one-liners,” Nienhuis writes. “Underneath nearly all the huge laughs is a genuine interest in what it means to be human.”
To illustrate his point, Nienhuis refers to The Foreigner’s breakfast scene “where Ellard has been directed by Betty to take no notice of Charlie.” The scene is infamously hilarious, but it is also an amazing display of humanity, from Ellard’s need for validation and respect to Charlie’s need for human connection, despite his shyness.
Writes Nienhuis: “Ellard’s spirit has been beaten down by years of low expectations, but he still cannot resist investigating this curious phenomenon in front of him. And Charlie, who has been similarly underestimated his whole life, has come to breakfast hoping to be left alone yet initiates the contact with Ellard. . . . Does Charlie react to Ellard out of genuine desire to create human contact? Or does he engage Ellard out of puckish love of play? Whatever Charlie’s motive, he belies in this gesture the self-denigrating appraisal that he is ‘boring,’ just as Ellard will belie to some extent the charge that he is ‘stupid’.”
Later in the play, Charlie responds to the threat of Owen with similar aplomb, using Owen’s fear of “foreigners” and the gibberish he has perfected as “language” to defeat that threat. “The audience laughs uproariously, in part because the comic villain has gotten his comeuppance, in part because the human potential for personal growth has been reaffirmed,” Nienhuis writes. “Shue should not be confused with Shakespeare or Chekhov, but there is in . . . The Foreigner a dramatic texture that the belly laughs can often obscure.”
The Foreigner reminds us that we need to laugh, and that sometimes laughter is all we have in the face of serious, human difficulty. When Larry Shue died, among the many tributes to him was the following gem from Amlin Gray, an actor, playwright, and close friend of Shue’s who offered this comment on Shue’s enduring legacy: “[Larry] used conventional structures as springboards, and he used them very skillfully. But sometimes all the underpinnings would just drop away and there would be a passage like . . . the breakfast scene in The Foreigner that lifted off into a sublime celebration of how silly and how lovely it is to be human. Now that Larry’s gone, nobody else will write these scenes, because nobody else knows how” ( “A Tribute” in A Book of Tributes, [Glen Ellyn Public Library, Glen Ellyn, Indiana, n.d.], 43).