Some plays are designed to make us think. Others prompt us to reflect on spiritual questions or to consider our place in the cosmos.
And then there’s a type with only one goal: to make us laugh.
Which brings us to Larry Shue’s “The Foreigner,” now onstage at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. This 1984 comedy fits the textbook definition of light entertainment. After all, its previous professional productions in the area were at the New Theatre and the now-defunct American Heartland Theatre.
Don’t get me wrong. There are valid reasons to see the Rep’s take on this antic amusement about shenanigans in a Georgia hunting lodge. Director Jerry Genochio has served up a well-acted, physically handsome production. It’s full of strong performances, none better than Kyle Hatley’s remarkable embodiment of a slow-on-the-uptake boy named Ellard.
The ensemble includes Martin S. Buchanan in the title role, a bashful Brit named Charlie Baker; Rusty Sneary as Charlie’s pal, Froggy LeSueur, a British army demolition expert; Kathleen Warfel as Betty Meeks, the flighty lodge owner, and Emily Shackelford as Catherine Simms, a young heiress (and Ellard’s sister) engaged to a fast-talking preacher named David Lee played by Charles Fugate.
The villain of the piece is Owen Musser, a stereotypical hostile redneck and member of the Ku Klux Klan played by Gary Neal Johnson, who seems to be having a fine time immersing himself in Owen’s intolerant, superstitious rascality.
Charlie is distraught because he believes his serially unfaithful wife may be dying, and Froggy has convinced him that what he needs is a few relaxing days at the lodge, one of Froggy’s favorite get-away places. But Charlie is so nervous about interacting with strangers that Froggy cooks up a conceit: Charlie will pose as a “foreigner” who speaks no English.
This allows him to overhear private conversations carried on in his presence by characters who assume he can’t understand a word they’re saying. So Charlie gets a pretty clear picture of what’s going on. The low-life Owen, the county building inspector, plans to condemn the lodge, forcing Betty to sell for next to nothing. Then, once his accomplice, the Rev. Lee, marries Catherine and gets his hands on her inheritance, they plan to turn the lodge into a meeting hall for the local Klan chapter.
Suffice to say that justice triumphs, thanks primarily to Charlie, who disguises his identity with a faux language that he makes up as he goes along.
This play is not without heart. There’s genuine poignancy in the relationship between Charlie and Ellard, the supposed half-wit who takes it upon himself to teach Charlie English. Hatley’s take on Ellard is exceptional in almost every way. He offers a precise and singular physical performance integrated beautifully with Ellard’s elemental emotions.
Once Charlie assumes his “foreign” identity, Buchanan’s performance takes flight. He uses his limber body and elastic facial expressions to great effect, and his timing is impeccable. Warfel is at her excitable best as Betty, whose misperceptions offer some of the show’s biggest laughs.
Shackelford has some nice moments, particularly when Catherine laments the superficial joy of her former life as a debutante. Fugate seems too urbane for a Southern-fried preacher, and Sneary fulfills the obligations of his utilitarian role. Johnson strikes a delicate balance between menace and stupidity as the repellent Owen.
Ultimately, the two-act play is too insubstantial to justify its running time. The plot mechanics of this elaborate sitcom overwhelm the characters after a certain point. But it is what it is: an unchallenging crowd-pleaser. And that’s not what we’ve come expect from the city’s leading nonprofit theater.Onstage
“The Foreigner” continues through Nov. 3 at the Spencer Theatre at the James C. Olson Performing Arts Center, 4949 Cherry St. For more information, call816-235-2700 or go to KCRep.org.