Playwright Larry Shue (1946-1985) established a successful career creating misfits. “The Nerd” continues to be a regional favorite, and “The Foreigner,” his 1984 Off Broadway smash, is on view again in New York with Matthew Broderick. “Foreigner” has a built-in pitfall: a central role so close to caricature that most actors tend to mug mercilessly. JD Cullum, who drew raves this year with “Stones in His Pockets” at the Mark Taper Forum, triumphs over this trap in the current Odyssey Theater production, applying a jittery restraint to the part that makes bizarre situations both hilarious and touching.
Cullum portrays insecure Charlie, who is understandably disturbed when he finds his faithless wife in the shower with one of 23 lovers that include “actors, writers, criminals, vegetarians.” Further discouraged by her estimation of him as “shatteringly, profoundly boring,” Charlie allows his officer friend Froggy (Paul V. O’Connor) to drag him to a rundown fishing lodge in Georgia. Froggy protects Charlie from having to communicate by informing owner Betty (a delightfully dotty Angela Paton) and other guests that he’s a foreigner who can’t speak or understand English.
After a wordy setup between Froggy and Betty, the show catches a strong comic wind from Cullum. Charlie’s supposed lack of comprehension enables him to hear and feign ignorance about the ruthless schemes of phony Reverend David (John Hemphill) and his Ku Klux Klansman compatriot Owen (Dave Florek) and their plans to cleanse the area of foreigners and minorities.
Sleazy, tattooed Florek brings dangerous believability to his line, “The last time I saw a foreigner, he was wiggling on the end of my bayonet.”
Victims of their chicanery include the Reverend’s bride-to-be Catherine (Alyss Henderson, who screams accusingly at her religious boyfriend, “I guess you’re not so sterile after all”), and Catherine’s dense brother Ellard (Colin Fickes), who must offer proof of intelligence before his sister will shell out his share of a million-dollar inheritance.
Director Steve Albrezzi overcomes some shallow plotting by walking a smooth path between farce and straightforward storytelling. Hemphill is deviously subtle, so his facade of decency is convincing. Henderson’s understated approach makes her burgeoning attraction to Charlie believable, and O’Connor’s portrayal of Charlie’s well-meaning, puzzled pal gives the situations a firm spine.
As Charlie unearths his latent charisma, Cullum evolves from sad-eyed loser to happily liberated hero. In the production’s funniest scene, he tells a story with a bogus accent, inventing a crazily brilliant gobbledygook language and accompanying it with jumpy gestures that only increase his magnetism.
Colin Fickes (“Dawson’s Creek”) matches Cullum with a comedic show of dumbness that disguises cleverness and heroism. He has uproarious moments, teaching Charlie English and bursting with pride as his pupil becomes impossibly fluent within seconds. Fickes’ wicked-witch-of-the-West meltdown (aided by Brian Long’s sounds of shattered glass, crowd noises and explosions and Ian Paul Garrett’s cinematic lighting) is a sequence to remember.