Physical Comedy Is a Chore, But Schwartz and Co. Make It Look Easy in The Foreigner

Special Features   Physical Comedy Is a Chore, But Schwartz and Co. Make It Look Easy in The Foreigner Director Scott Schwartz is no stranger to staging a musical, having directed Off-Broadway's tick, tick...BOOM! and Bat Boy: The Musical, but his current non-musical job proved to be as much of a choreographic feat as anything that sings.
Scott Schwartz
Scott Schwartz Photo by Aubrey Reuben

For Larry Shue's comedy The Foreigner at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre, Schwartz worked with a script that asked for sometimes intense physical comedy. Comedy, they say, is hard, but physical comedy is really hard.

"Working on something as funny as The Foreigner always makes for a fun rehearsal process — we laughed a heck of a lot," Schwartz told Playbill On-Line. "But, yes, there were times when we just had to really break down moments very technically to figure out how to make that work. Y'know, sometimes that's tedious. That's why it's a job..."

The popular play, first seen 20 years ago at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre and later Off-Broadway and around the country, concerns Charlie (now played by Matthew Broderick), a stressed-out and profoundly shy Brit who pretends he doesn't speak English in order to avoid contact with guests at a Georgia bed and breakfast to which he has retreated.

Contact with the locals is inevitable, and secrets are revealed in the presence of the newcomer, who doesn't speak the language. The deception results in changes inside Charlie and for the those he befriends.

The play famously has choice bits of physical comedy as Charlie interacts with the slow-witted Ellard (played by Kevin Cahoon). In the parlor of the B&B, they teach one another rituals of their language and domestic habits — like celebrating breakfast with a bizarre dance that includes placing a juice glass upside-down on your head, or pronunciation of nonsensical foreign words. At one point in the breakfast table scene, Ellard and Charlie bond — without language — as they mimic each other's eating habits, performing mirror-images of their actions.

Are there pages and pages of description in the Shue script, or is it created by the director and the actors?

"There's actually quite a lot of description in the script," Schwartz said. "In the breakfast scene, about two-thirds of what we did was in the script, but we did embellish it. The way our breakfast scene ends is a little bit different than the way it ends in the script. In the script it ends when they put the glasses on their heads. In ours, Matthew and Kevin do a little bit more..."

Schwartz continued, "My basic attitude was, Larry Shue is a brilliant comic writer, and he was very specific in terms of his physical ideas for the show. He was apparently, in life, quite a physical comedian. But I always felt this was a brilliant cast and we need to give ourselves permission to try stuff out and come up with our own ideas as well."

The late Shue's The Foreigner — and his best known other work, The Nerd — are rich in nonsensical physical comedy. It shouldn't come as a surprise that Shue was an actor as well as a writer. Before he died in a plane crash in 1985, he was set to appear in The Public Theater's The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and actually appeared as Charlie's best friend, Froggy, in the Astor Place Theatre production of The Foreigner.

Schwartz said, "I talked to a lot of people who knew him, and in fact talked to his sister quite a lot — and John Dillon, the artistic director at Milwaukee Rep when Larry Shue was there and writing these plays, including The Foreigner. Everyone told me he was a very 'outside in' actor, in that he would always want to come up with the way a character looked and moved first, and then would kind of find it from there. I think that's clear in his plays. He thought about the world and comedy in a physical way."

In the play, two characters are revealed as members of the Ku Klux Klan, who seek to take over the B&B for their new headquarters. The foreigner Charlie becomes their sudden enemy. Does the social conscience of the play interest Schwartz?

"It does very much," he said. "I heard that Larry Shue said when he wrote this play that he wanted to write a play that is 'about something' — as opposed to The Nerd, which he said was about 'how funny can I, Larry Shue, be?' The issues are, what does it mean to be 'the other'? And acceptance of other people for who they really are. And also the very complicated philosophy of discovering the truth through deception. Gosh, that sounds like Moliere or something. All of those issues interested me. What Larry Shue did always was take the truth and exaggerate it to comic extremes."

The reference to Moliere is not out of line. Comedy is about craft, setup and the proper amount of information to make it pay off.

"The other thing that I've always felt about this play is that it's incredibly well structured," Schwartz observed. "Every single thing pays off. Every moment is set up. There's nothing in it where you say, 'Whoa, where did that come from?' or 'He was doing that just to be funny.' Yes, there's a helluva lot of stuff in the show which is there to be funny but it's very, very well built. It's a pleasure to work on plays like that because you learn so much as an artist — about how to build things."

Like many others who have worked on Shue plays, Schwartz wishes the writer were still around: "In rehearsal, so many times we would say, 'Who knows what this guy would have gone on to do?' You can only imagine he would have gone on to write a lot more really, really funny stuff."

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The cast also includes Frances Sternhagen, Mary Catherine Garrison, Neal Huff, Byron Jennings and Lee Tergesen.

For tickets to The Foreigner, which continues its limited run at the Laura Pels Theatre (111 West 46 St.) to Jan. 16, 2005, call Roundabout Ticket Services at (212) 719-1300 or go online to www.roundabouttheatre.org.