Contemporary theater often seems to value politics over performance. We've come to expect some plays to make us squirm in our seats as they shed light on the (usually grim) human condition.
Sometimes, though, we just want to watch a VW bus full of Ku Klux Klan regalia explode onstage.
To that end, the Kansas City Repertory Theatre offers The Foreigner, that old farcical holiday. Director Jerry Genochio wrings laugh after laugh out of Larry Shue's 1982 comedy, serving up the theatrical equivalent of a plate of warm chocolate-chip cookies.
The elaborate setup introduces us to a host of Chekhov's-gun elements ready for later deployment. British army demolitions expert Froggy (Rusty Sneary) arrives at the Meeks Fishing Lodge in rural Georgia with his buddy Charlie in tow. Charlie (Martin S. Buchanan) provides the paralyzed panic to Froggy's casual ease: He freezes when faced with strangers, stammers like a skipped record, and absolves his wife of any wrongdoing for her serial adultery. Charlie is, as he puts it himself, "shatteringly, profoundly boring."
To assuage his pal's stage fright, Froggy proposes a ruse: He'll introduce Charlie as a foreigner, someone who doesn't speak any English. The lodge's residents, they figure, are sure to ignore him.
The plan works. Believing him incapable of understanding, Betty Meeks and her lodgers spill a ceaseless gossip column of intimate secrets and slippery schemes in Charlie's presence. Ex-debutante Catherine Simms (Emily Shackelford) sobs about an unplanned pregnancy with her intended, a minister. The Reverend himself (played with salesman smarm by Charles Fugate) connives with property inspector and good ol' boy Owen Musser (Gary Neal Johnson) to condemn Betty's home and buy it for a pittance. Their goal? To transform the lodge into a KKK headquarters.
From here, the antics spin into a shape reminiscent of classic crowd-pleasing comedies such as Noises Off or vintage Neil Simon — culture shock, sight gags, masquerading villains, a lovable "half-wit" to root for. The formula might be predictable, but, like a favorite family recipe, it yields nostalgic comforts.
Buchanan leads the charge with an expressive, physical performance that transforms Charlie from a self-conscious stiff into a foreign raconteur, pontificating in a made-up tongue. Kathleen Warfel is note-perfect as stubborn caretaker Betty, and excellent dialect work from her and Gary Neal Johnson capture the speech rhythms and postures of the rural South. Kyle Hatley turns in a precise and hilarious performance as the not-so-bright Ellard Simms, Catherine's squirmy, chipmunk-chasing brother.
The technical elements are similarly skillful. Jack Magaw's scenic design brings the rustic fishing lodge to life, and the raked cabin roof creates its own proscenium arch. Mark Kent Varns' lights set the cozy orange glow of the lodge against the flashes of a stormy night outside. Rachel Lartiz's fine costumes include a beautiful Act II dress for Shackelford.
The script occasionally shows its age, and modern audiences might find the ending a little too tidy, the villain's dialogue ("I was so close!" he howls) a little cliché. Still, this is an intricately plotted whirlwind of fluffy, full-hearted comedy. Save the psyche-probing drama for another night — some theatrical pleasures should remain guilt-free.