Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
The Foreigner and The Eclectic Society
Also see Tim's reviews of Blue Door, Gagarin Way and The Prince
Charlie is an Englishman moping about the imminent collapse of his marriage and his own isolation"I'm not good at talking ... idle conversation terrifies me." His friend Froggy somehow talks him into getting away from it all for a few days at a fishing lodge in rural Georgia. But Charlie doesn't want anyone else in the lodge to speak to him, so Froggy invents a story that Charlie doesn't speak English. Against his better judgment, Charlie goes along with the plan and speaks in a vaguely Eastern European accent with an impromptu language of his own devise ("gock" means yes, "blit" means no). The persona he assumes reawakens Charlie's joy in life and empowers him to thwart an evil plan to take over the lodge (and perhaps even the whole United States).
It all stretches plausibility, especially the obvious, overdone climax in which the villains turn out to be Klansmen. But it all works, thanks in large part to the superb lead performance by Kraig Swartz. His sad-sack expressions are reminiscent of silent clowns like Stan Laurel and Harry Langdon, and like them he's a master of physical comedy. But his physical gags and his superb timing never seem ostentatious; they're all in the service of the character.
The supporting cast has no weak links, and everyone gets a chance to shine. David Edwards is appropriately exasperated as Charlie's army buddy, while Susan Moses is sweetly befuddled as the lodge's landlady. Tom Tansey is all slickness and smiles as a tightly wound preacher, while Jennie Eisenhower is charming as the preacher's fiancée, who has to escape from under his spell to see the light. Michael Barra and John Jezior endow their stock Southern stereotyped characters with nice touches of humanity.
You may have your misgivings, but by the time act two rolls around, you'll find The Foreigner pretty hard to resist.
The Foreigner runs through March 14, 2010, at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Ticket prices range from $29 to $37, with discounts available for students and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-785-0100, online at www.brtstage.org, or by visiting the box office.====
Alas, it's a shame to report that the set is the best thing about the show. Eric Conger's play, his first, takes place at a self-involved college club where everyone talks about responsibility, but no one acts responsibly. It features a cast that's youthful, but the show has little energy. Its characters lack depth, and they're stuck in an unconvincing plot filled with long, chatty, stagnant scenes. Director Ed Herendeen's production at the Walnut Street Theatre is very attractive, and the cast seems to be having fun, but they're all working too hard, trying to imbue this story with a sense of significance that it simply doesn't have.
It's November 1963 on the campus of an elite Connecticut college, one which bears more than a passing resemblance to the playwright's alma mater, Wesleyan University. We're in the stately home of The Eclectic Society, which claims to be a "literary society" but is really a glorified fraternity. The society is up to its usual tricksclaiming to be upholding a noble tradition while pulling cruel pranks on the freshman pledges. They're also concerned about Darrell, who's just been voted in as their newest brother despite overwhelming objections. They're not concerned that he's black; they consider themselves open-minded on race, even though they only have one other black member. No, what concerns them (they claim) is Darrell's supposed troubled past, plus his supposed criminal background and his supposed bad grades. They're afraid that Darrell will bring shame upon the society and lower its statusand to this group, nothing's more important than status.
The characters are all students, ones who have a lot of growing up to do. Like most gatherings of college students, the play is filled with witless, sophomoric humor. (I'd imagine that some of the Walnut's older subscribersthe ones who were offended by the language in last year's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Producerswill be firing off letters complaining about the semen jokes and the mooning scene in The Eclectic Society.)
Tom (Dan Amboyer) is the star quarterback, the society president, and the most mature of the brothers. He's also the biggest jerk, which is saying something. The sensible Tina (Julianna Zinkel) is the only female character; she's Tom's fiancée and the Wendy to these Lost Boys. She drapes her enticing frame across the couch and purrs, "I'm the only thrill these sex-starved intellectuals have had all week," and it's sadly true. She spends most of the play deciding whether to dump Tom, but you'll want her to rid herself of all of the brothers before the play is through. And then there's Darrell (J. Alex Brinson), who may not be the dangerous character others see him as; maybe he's just a misunderstood beat poet. You've seen characters like Darrell in countless TV dramas, but Brinson deserves credit for playing him with a sly, dangerous edge.
There are nine other characters; they're onstage long enough to give us a taste of their personalities, but not enough to make us care about them. If you went to college with these tiresome bullies, you'd want to transfer to a school far, far away.
The Eclectic Society runs through March 7, 2010, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $10 to $60, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by visiting the box office.