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Larry Shue's "The Foreigner" opened at The Rep, and it may well be THE Milwaukee play. (PHOTO: Michael Brosilow)

Rep's "The Foreigner" is a Milwaukee institution that resonates clearly today

St. Louis has Tennessee Williams and "The Glass Menagerie." Chicago has David Mamet and "Glengarry Glen Ross."

If Milwaukee has a play and playwright of its own, it may well be "The Foreigner," which premiered at the Milwaukee Rep 33 years ago and is being staged there once again – at a time when it seems more appropriate than ever before.

The play, written for The Rep by Larry Shue, has been performed hundreds of times around the world, most often as an almost-farcical comedy – and make no mistake about it, this is one of the funniest plays you may ever see.

But this production, under the truthful, brave and guileless direction of Laura Gordon, captures moments that resound so brutally to our world now.

From its opening moments until the lights go down low, this show is filled with laughs. But underneath all the comedy there is, like those who came before, a biting comment on the social issues of the day. And it couldn't be more timely.

History has always been spotted with funny people who poked holes at society and the way things are going. Think of Mort Sahl and Richard Pryor and George Carlin.

You can add Larry Shue's name to that list.

Englishman Charlie Baker (Matt Zembrano) has traveled to a lodge in Georgia with his friend, Sergeant Froggy LeSueur, who is on a military assignment. But Charlie is a stricken man, with a wife who has had 23 lovers and is laying on her deathbed at home We believe the lovers and impending death are not related.

As he explains his depth of depression over being separated from the woman he (and 23 other men) loves, he begs Froggy to find a way to keep people from talking to him. Naturally shy and retiring, this copy editor at a science fiction magazine just wants to be left alone so he doesn't have to talk to anyone. So Froggy, who is about to leave, creates a story that Charlie is from some unnamed far away exotic country and that he can't speak a word of English.

From that moment, the comedy ensues.

He is greeted first by the owner of the lodge, Betty Meeks (Linda Stephens), who has never traveled out of her tiny hamlet and is over the mountain with glee at having a foreigner in her midst. Her first couple of tea for this visitor is accompanied by shouting in his face in the hope that volume will penetrate his comprehension.

The other characters arrive in Charlie's world at a frantic pace. First we see Catherine Simms (Cristina Panfilio) and the Rev. David Marshall Lee (Marcus Truschinski), who enter in the midst of a discussion over the news that she is pregnant and that the wedding is still months away. Charlie hides in a sofa in order to avoid being noticed, but once seen, Catherine is at first embarrassed and then pleased to find out that Charlie didn't understand a word that was said.

And we are off and running, joined by the Catherine's dim-witted brother Ellard (Brendan Meyer) and the classic redneck, Owen Muser (Eric Parks). Charlie learns all the scandals and secrets of the assembled masses, and they find no difficulty revealing themselves in front of him. It is Muser who hoists the petard upon which Shue flashes his mighty disdain for all that is the worst of life in the deep South.

Face to face with Charlie, Owen portends the arc of this story – and the bitterness at the heart of it.

"Hey dummy. You still here, huh? Well, well. You havin' a nice time? Bet you are. Sucking around, playing like you're one a' us? I tell you one thing dummy-boy. You enjoy it now. 'Cause I get t' be county sheriff around here – and I got that Invisible Empire t' back me up – man, they ain't gonna be none o' you left in this county. Foreigners. Yeah. Gonny wipe you all right out – all you dummy boys, black boys, Jewboys. We gonna clean up this whole country by and by. And you know where it's gonna start? Right here. Thass' right. This gonna be the most important spot in the U. S. of A., come the next couple of years. It is. You ain't gonna see it though. No, sir. We gonna ride y'all outta here ever' way they is. Plane. Boat. Yeah 'n' we can afford it, too. An' you know what I hope? I hope some a' you fight back, too. I jes hope you do. Cause I wanna find out what you got fer blood."

Thirty-three years ago this play was written, but that speech sounds like it was Donald Trump on the campaign trail before the election.

"The Foreigner" runs through Dec. 18 and information on tickets and showtimes is available here.

Production credits: Director, Laura Gordon; Scenic Designer, Bill Clarke; Costume Designer Rachel Laritz; Lighting Designer, Jason Fassl; Sound Designer, Joe Cerqua; Fight Choreographer, Jamie Cheatham; Casting Director JC Clementz; Stage Manager Sarah Deming-Henes.

Notable

  • Linda Stephens was married to Larry Shue, and throughout her brilliant career as an actor on Broadway and in many regional theaters, she has always talked about her debt to their relationship. Her turn in "The Foreigner" is her first in this play, and she, like the amazing actor she is, knocked it out of the park. She gave her Betty Meeks a kind of spirituality that allowed her to communicate with Charlie despite the language problems. You could easily see how her profound desire and pleasures created her sense of belief. She is an absolute joy to watch on a stage, and when she and James Pickering were together, it was like Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn dancing.

  • Zambrano, who is based in New York and is making his Rep debut, is absolutely priceless. He tells a story that begins with "Breez neez-enyep, sneep" and ends with "Eevno peevno pomsky peem." He is an actor who can say more with a glance or a slight wave of the hand than many people can with a page full of dialogue.
  • Shue, according to those who knew him best, was a funny fellow who loved jokes and his play reflects that love. The humor in the play comes from situations, but it is expressed in one-liners that could almost stand on their own. I can't begin to remember all the great lines, but one stands out as perhaps the best of the evening. Catherine is talking at Charlie and reading a story in the paper about the debutante ball. She is derisive of the debs, but then confesses that she was one the previous year and that she misses it. She realizes her hypocrisy, reclines on the sofa, fanning herself, and she says, "I don't think I was cut out to be a decent person."

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