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Photograph by Pat Kirk
GOOD LISTENER: Catherine Simms (Anna Bullard) tells her troubles to Charlie Baker (Louis Lotorto) in 'The Foreigner.'

English Spin

San Jose Rep's 'The Foreigner' gets found in translation

By Matthew Craggs

ON A recent vacation to Denmark, the young son of the family I was staying with took great pleasure in my recitation of the Danish numbers that he had taught me. En, to, tre, I would repeat, his eyes beaming with joy. This need for communication despite a language barrier is what drives the humor and the heart behind The Foreigner. To kick off its 2008–09 season, the San Jose Repertory Theatre has chosen a winner of two Obie Awards that takes a hilarious look at the way America approaches foreigners. When the pathologically shy Charlie Baker checks into a Georgia fishing lodge, his friend, "Froggy" LeSueur (Steve Irish as a Sgt. Slaughter reject with some great asides), tells the other guests that Charlie is a foreigner and doesn't understand English. Desperate to be left alone, Charlie, deftly played by Louis Lotorto, grudgingly goes along with the lie only to find that his ruse causes people to let their guard down. Secrets, confessions and devious plots are unraveled to Charlie, because the patrons believe their words fall on foreign ears.

By not identifying Charlie's supposed country of origin, playwright Larry Shue is free to comment on our view of a foreigner as an abstract notion. Shue and director Andrew Barnicle mostly concentrate on how a language barrier can make people feel threatened, ignorant or even empowered. Charlie uses his made-up language to convey thoughts he would normally be too timid to put forth, while the insecurities of local residents Reverend David (Craig Marker) and Owen (James Asher) flair up every time they don't understand something Charlie says.

Still, the ability to overcome these barriers is what resounds throughout the play. Perceived as dimwitted and slow by his sister, Catherine (Anna Bullard, who screams her way through the first act but tones it down later on), a young man named Ellard takes it upon himself to teach Charlie English. There is a joy in the student-teacher role reversal as Aaron Wilton's Ellard is empowered by his discovery that knowledge is relative. Largely a monolingual country and some would argue barely that, America still expresses outrage that an immigrant doesn't understand English. When innkeeper Betty Meeks (Phoebe Elinor Moyer) defends Charlie by explaining, "He don't speak no English!" our demands that the world learn English when we don't even have a firm grasp on it ourselves seems ridiculous.

The Foreigner is not a comedy of mistaken identities; it's a comedy of revealed identities. The humor comes from the characters exposing—both intentionally and unintentionally—aspects of their personalities that they don't generally share with the world. No one embraces this transition more than Charlie himself, as Lotorto skillfully takes the character from timid to jovial to heroic.

On the downside, that old standby Chekhov's gun gets overheated in The Foreigner, telegraphing the climax and some of the jokes. Balancing this is plenty of witty wordplay and light commentary on a great set complete with a believable misty fog that lingers outside the windows. Even with these minor faults, The Foreigner is an outstanding production that reaffirms that while the world speaks different dialects, the universal language is laughter.

THE FOREIGNER, a San Jose Repertory Theatre production, plays Tuesday at 7:30pm, Wednesday–Friday at 8pm (with added show, Sept. 24 at 11am), Saturday at 3 and 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Sept. 28 at the Rep, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $15–$59. (408.367.7255)

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