Charlie Baker is, by his own admission, a man without a personality: a pathologically shy British proofreader who is terrified of the simplest social interactions and has been cuckolded 23 times by his wife. For reasons that are never terribly clear, and don’t really matter in the end, he is dragged to a rustic little inn in the North Georgia mountains by his friend Froggy and then abandoned there. To avoid conversation with the other guests, Charlie pretends to be a generic “foreigner” who neither speaks nor understands English.
Larry Shue’s oft-performed 1983 comedy “The Foreigner” — playing at Georgia Ensemble Theatre through March 11 — has many of the trappings of classic farce: characters who hustle offstage so they can miss key bits of information, lots of secrets and increasingly desperate attempts to keep them, and folks who overreact to whatever happens in order to drive the spiral of silliness upward. It plays out a little gentler than true farce by being more thoughtful and endearing, without an overbearing amount of nudge-nudge-wink-wink.
Which is not to say that there aren’t some spectacularly stupid characters stomping about. Everyone at the inn makes his or her own assumptions about Charlie: that he is dim, or wise, or a good listener. There’s Betty (Nita Hardy), who owns the inn but is being pressured into selling it; Owen (Scott Musser), a nasty redneck who taunts Charlie; Ellard (Bryan Mercer), a mentally challenged young man delighted to have someone who seems dumber than he is; Ellard’s sister, Catherine (Tracy Vaden Moore), dismayed to find that she is pregnant with her wedding still a few months away; and her fiancé, the Rev. Lee (Jonathan MacQueen), who’s clearly too slick for his own good or anyone else’s.
They confide in Charlie, or allow him to overhear their secrets because he supposedly can’t understand them anyway. And as he is pumped full of their confidences, he becomes more confident himself until, shyly and hesitatingly, he becomes a hero.
These are broad comic characters, played very broadly by the excellent cast, which wrings every laugh possible out of the play. But it’s Hugh Adams as Charlie who anchors and lifts the show, with his Chaplinesque chops. He’s key to the funniest set pieces: a silent game of mirror-miming at the breakfast table with Ellard; the long tale he’s forced to tell in his alleged native language, which he invents on the spot as some bizarre mash-up of pidgin Russian and the Swedish Chef from “The Muppets” (which the others find enthralling); and the climactic scene, in which he battles the Ku Klux Klan (it’s a long story) with wit and flatulence.
Playwright Shue has a slight connection to Atlanta; the New Orleans native was an actor here briefly in the 1970s, before he won much more acclaim as a writer (his only other play of note is “The Nerd”). He died in a plane crash in 1985, but not before he had the chance to play Charlie himself in an early production of “The Foreigner.” It’s clear that Charlie is some sort of stand-in for Shue, who once said he wrote his plays out of embarrassment. Such a strange impetus for writing, and such a strange little character is Charlie Baker.