Accents Get Big American Laughs; Is Being a Foreigner That Funny?

I was glad to hear John Patrick Shanley sounding off about bad plays recently. Misery loves company, you see. But theater folk rarely criticize theater, except in private between consenting adults. The bold Mr. Shanley-who has three plays, no less, opening this season-was tempting fate a bit, but here’s what he had to say in The New York Times Magazine as a frustrated theatergoer himself:

“Playwriting is the last great bastion of the individual writer. It’s exciting precisely because it’s where the money isn’t . Money goes to safety, to consensus …. That’s why sometimes I get very frustrated watching plays. I’m like: ‘Man, you have the shot here to say anything and this is what you’re saying? This boring retread of a play I’ve seen 500 times …. I mean you could do or say anything that’s within the bounds of the law if you don’t harm anybody physically, and this is what you’re doing?’”

In every man, and every woman, is a critic. But we all share Mr. Shanley’s honest response. For myself, though, I always feel badly blaming the playwright (including, on occasion, Mr. Shanley). It doesn’t always show, but my heart goes out to the poor sod who fills the blank page with words and, sometimes, with his blood. The image of Eugene O’Neill emerging from his writing room drained and gray from the daily struggle with the wreckage of life suffices. It has always seemed to me that writers are heroes.

Stanislavsky believed that the kings and rulers of the stage are actors. Maybe so, on the night-but without the playwright, there wouldn’t be a play. The writer gives us hope, beyond hope, that something magnificent can be created that never existed before.

“Theater is just too exciting a prospect to be left to dullards,” Mr. Shanley concluded. True, if harsh. But I prefer to blame producers. They are the ones who choose the plays.

I’ve no argument with bottom-line Broadway producers. Apart from the usual British import or star-driven revival, Broadway has more or less abandoned serious drama. “Money goes to safety, to consensus”-as Mr. Shanley says. But when the producers of nonprofit theater throw in the towel, we’re in real trouble. They represent the last bastion of the true artist, “because it’s where the money isn’t.” Because their stages are the only places left in American theater where the commercial bottom line isn’t intended to rule.

Last week, I questioned the Roundabout Theatre’s decision to revive the already well-known potboiler from the 50′s, Twelve Angry Men , which began life as an hour-long TV play. Not to repeat the arguments: My central point is that the Roundabout’s nonprofit status-the very reason why it’s in existence-is to avoid typical commercial fare and offer us a radically different choice.

It wasn’t too long ago that the Roundabout staged the musical history of Burt Bacharach. Let it be said in fairness that all our major nonprofit houses make similar “necessary compromises,” as they say, and the critical fraternity doesn’t seem to mind. Reading several other critics on Twelve Angry Men, I found they all enjoyed it, or forgave it, except for one. John Lahr of The New Yorker questioned the choice and even made a few alternative suggestions from “the treasure chest of commercial theatre (George Kelly’s The Show Off, Lillian Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest, S.J. Perelman’s The Beauty Part , Arthur Kopit’s Indians , to name four) that have literary as well as theatrical merit.”

But what are we to say about the Roundabout’s decision to revive Larry Shue’s 1983 farce, The Foreigner , at its more intimate second theater off Broadway, the Laura Pels? Proudly displayed on the wall of its lobby is the solemn declaration that the Laura Pels “will be used by Roundabout artists in the creation of new works.”

The Foreigner , starring Matthew Broderick, isn’t new, and I’m afraid that as farces go, it should have went a generation ago. ” This is what you’re doing?” It might be that it left my new best friend, John Lahr, rolling alone in the aisles. But it only sank me.

A good farce can be a tonic; a bad one-as Laurence Olivier once said about a fellow actor in a comedy-is about as funny as a dead baby in an open coffin. The revival of The Foreigner is a celebration of ignorance that’s built on the shoddy premise that foreignness-being foreign-is inherently funny. If you find the sound of a foreign accent hysterical, The Foreigner is for you. But if Mr. Broderick had swapped his Russianish accent for an Arab’s, he couldn’t have done much worse.

Set in a fishing lodge in hillbilly Georgia, Mr. Shue must have intended it all as a kind of madcap comment on the Cold War. Mr. Broderick is in nerd mode yet again. He plays a middle-class Englishman, Charlie, who’s so painfully, anonymously shy that during a visit to Georgia, he pretends he can’t speak any English. Much comedy ensues. Being Southern is also meant to be a riot, too. For example, Ellard, the village idiot, teaches Charlie English: “faw-erk” (fork); “layump” (lamp). There are also excruciatingly milked mimes when Charlie copies Ellard’s eating habits and his laborious use of the faw-erk and other thongs.

It isn’t exactly that Mr. Broderick is repeating his performance from The Producers , although it’s exactly the same at center. It is more that this is the star’s only performance. Mr. Broderick is forever the ingenue, the adorable innocent in over his head. He has all the moves-the fussy, mincing little steps and peculiar hops, the borrowings from silent movies, the cute, ingratiating smile-but he isn’t innately funny. He’s the straight man, not the comic.

When not speaking, when not “on,” he lapses into a neutral blank-an attempt at Laurel without Hardy. There are long, leaden stretches during Act l when he doesn’t have much to do except sit there. He could be asleep. It would be understandable. There’s no inner vitality in him, no sense of the combustibly outrageous. A self-conscious puppy-dog charm is his calling card. Mr. Broderick is an earnest miniaturist playing the eternal naïf too much.

There’s also Francis Sternhagen, of all wonderful actresses, playing an adorable old biddy who shouts at foreigners to be understood. There’s the British Sergeant “Froggy” LeSueur, who dynamites things by accident. There’s a threatening type with tattoos who’s a member of the Klan and says stuy-uff like, “Why, last time I saw a foreigner, he was wrigglin’ on the end o’ my bayonet.” And there’s an evangelical priest (who’s a secret member of the Klan) and his tarty but good-hearted wife, flashing her knickers in a miniskirt, who’s also an heiress who falls for sweet Charlie, who-oh, skip it.

A farce about these weird people who come from other countries might be rationalized by some as a morality tale for our time. You can rationalize anything. The Foreigner is the wrong choice in the wrong place at the wrong time. Which reminds me of something. It’s spinach, and the hell with it.