'The Foreigner' hits the mark

From left, Krista Kurtzberg, Ben Schnickel, Matthew Conlon

From left, Krista Kurtzberg, Ben Schnickel, Matthew Conlon and Diana Marbury star in "The Foreigner" at Hampton Theatre Company, Quogue, starting March 13, 2014. (Credit: Tom Kochie)

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"The Foreigner" is a play that critics tend to dismiss while audiences howl at its comic improbability. But this edgy farce has acquired more heft in the 30 years since its Off-Broadway debut.

For those who are aware that its creator, Larry Shue, died in a plane crash at age 39 less than a year after opening night, "The Foreigner" survives as bittersweet elegy. One of the early complaints of critics concerns the characterization of the Southern country folk who populate the setting -- a Georgia fishing lodge -- as rubes. But Charlie, the shy Englishman who utters no English, earnestly makes as big a fool of himself as anyone in the room. So much for snobbery.

Its popularity and one-room set make "The Foreigner" a favorite among regional theaters across the country. The most recent local resurrection before the current Hampton Theatre Company staging was by Northport's John W. Engeman Theater in 2009.

Director Sarah Hunnewell meets the challenge of pitting clowning against criminal hate on Sean Marbury's expansive log-cabin set. Hate, sadly, remains obstinately robust today.

Matthew Conlon convinces us of Charlie's metamorphosis from self-defeating introvert to generous friend who brightens the lives of everyone around him. Everyone except those who would do his friends harm.

"Froggy" prescribes the backwoods resort as an antidote to Charlie's depression over his wife's poor health and chronic infidelity. Because Charlie says he's too distraught to speak to strangers, Froggy (avuncular Terry Brockbank) tells the lady of the lodge, Betty, that his friend speaks only in a foreign tongue. When he unintentionally eavesdrops on an intimate conversation between David, a circumspect man of the cloth, and his fiancee, Charlie is forgiven when it's explained that he understood not a word. In work shoes and aproned dress (costumes by Teresa Lebrun), Diana Marbury has us believing she's a lifelong country girl. Krista Kurtzberg as Catherine, a former debutante, makes us wonder what she sees in David -- except that he's a hunk -- deviously played by Joe Pallister. Catherine's brother Ellard is portrayed by Ben Schnickel with admirable restraint as a dimwit who's smarter than he sounds, while James Ewing's snarling Klansman turns comedy into crisis. Still mangling his English, Charlie describes his white-robed-and-hooded antagonist as "sheet-head."

But it's the physical comedy -- Charlie's gibberish storytelling and mirrored breakfast-table pantomime with Ellard -- that makes "The Foreigner" a dichotomous delight.

WHAT "The Foreigner"

WHEN|WHERE 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, through March 30. Quogue Community Hall, 125 Jessup Ave.

TICKETS $23-$25, $10 for students, 631-653-8955, hamptontheatre.org

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