• From left, Bud Gillett as Froggy Lesuer, Clark Hackney as Charlie Baker and Angela Burkey as Betty Meeks in a scene from the Carnegie Players production of “The Foreigner,” playing through Sunday at the Cleburne Conference Center. COURTESY PHOTO/BOB BECk

‘The Foreigner’ delivers loads of laughs

Some strangers to the stage in Johnson County make you feel right at home in the Carnegie Players presentation of “The Foreigner.”

There’s only one problem: There were more than 200 empty seats in the 297-seat Performing Arts Center at the Cleburne Conference Center on the Saturday night performance I attended.

Come on, Johnson County! You’re missing a quality presentation by outstanding actors and a talented behind-the-scenes crew all under the direction of venerable community theatre veteran Jay Cornils.

What a live-theater-lover’s blessing to have the Carnegie Players and Plaza Theatre Company in the same county, not to mention the same easy-to-get-to Cleburne. There’s no need to choose one over the other. Support both. They do by promoting each other’s schedule and by the free flow of actors and technicians who perform at each venue.

And, in a “I-can-do-anything-you-can-do-better” friendly way, CP and PTC have caused the other to be better. There certainly has been a change at Carnegie. It’s difficult to define, but the 40-year-old theatre company has new faces and voices. It was apparent in “Rumors,” and continues in “The Foreigner,” that CP is attracting fresh faces who are bringing with them ensemble-style experience and stage presence.

I encourage you to turn off the TV, push away from the computer, put down your cell phone and see “The Foreigner” while there’s still a chance.   

Carnegie newcomers Bud Gillett, Clark Hackney, Tim Herndon, Hannah Kellar and Quentin Scott combine with fourth-timer Angela Burkey and sixth-timer Erin Ivey to present this hilarious comedy that has an equal amount of sight gags, physical hijinks and funny lines.

The play takes place in one setting: Betty Meeks’ Fishing Lodge Resort in Tilghman County, Georgia.

The fun begins when Froggy LeSueur (the instantly recognizable Gillett, who has been in three PTC productions and in your living room for 37 years as a reporter for Fox 4 News and CBS 11 News), a British soldier sent to teach American military how to blow up things, arrives at the lodge accompanied by Charlie Baker (“No, it’s not code. It’s my real name,” he says as played by Hackney), a shy, boring proofreader who has just found out his wife is cheating on him and wants to be left alone.

Not wanting to further humiliate himself, Charlie tells Froggy he doesn’t want to talk to anyone. Froggy devises an idea that Charlie is a “foreigner” who can’t speak or understand English, and thus will be left alone while Froggy is away teaching about explosives.

The idea begins to backfire when Meeks (a loud, expressive and funny Burkey), who is enamored with anything foreign and mysterious, waits on Charlie hand and foot and talks to him with the loud voice we all somehow use when trying to verbally communicate with someone who cannot speak our language.

The idea really explodes when lodgers Catherine Simms (Kellar), her sister Ellie (Ivey), who lives in her own world, and the Rev. David Lee (Scott), an apparent holier-than-thou evangelizer who is engaged to the already-pregnant Catherine, share their secrets in front of and to Charlie because they think he cannot understand what they are saying.

If you’ve seen “The Foreigner” before, you will immediately notice that the gender of the male character Ellard has been changed to the female Ellie. As Cornils explains in his director’s notes that accompany the playbill, he was worried that not enough quality actors would audition for the part, so he received permission from the family of playwright Larry Shue to make the transition, which is seamless because first-time viewers won’t know the difference and veteran viewers won’t care because Ivey is so good.

The laughs stop for a few minutes when Kellar delivers an outstanding monologue about the challenges she faces taking care of her sister and her situation with the reverend.

After that, she goes to her room and Charlie is privy to a conversation between the reverend and red neck code inspector Owen Musser (Herndon), about how they plan to swindle Catherine out of her inheritance and Betty out of the lodge so they can turn it into a headquarters for the Ku Klux Klan.

Along the way, there are some funny, funny scenes as Ellie tries to teach English to Charlie, and Charlie communicates with a gibberish that is supposed to be his native language.

Hackney may be new to the Carnegie Players, but he is not a rookie, as attested to by his credits in the director’s notes and his self-confident performance. He nails every one of the multiple opportunities he has for non-verbal communication.

One of the funniest scenes is Charlie telling the story of what looks like “Little Red Riding Hood” but could be anything from “Frankenstein” to the Three Stooges meet Daffy Duck.

The actors’ facial expressions, the timing of the physical comedy and the surprise of the final scene all require excellent direction, as does a clever mirror-image interplay between Charlie and Ellie using juice glasses at the breakfast table.

Credit that to director Cornils, who played Charlie when CP presented “The Foreigner” way back in 2006.

Although Herndon, Kellar and Scott, like Hackney, are Carnegie first-timers, each have numerous Metroplex community theatre appearances in their portfolios and each is perfect for his or her part.

You can just tell there’s something sinister about Scott’s Rev. Lee, and you just know Ellie will somehow save the day.

Watch her instantaneously positive response to everything that happens.

For Burkey, however, this really is just another step for her on a community stage, something she has been doing since 2008, and she couldn’t have been cast in a better role. Her portrayal gold-hearted Meeks is perfect.

Kudos, too, to stage manager Mallory Sellers who makes everything work on the set designed by Cornils, constructed by Mik Brown and Chris Shirley and made alive by scenic artist Stacey Greenawalt.

There is a sad side bar to the play, and that’s the untimely death of its author, Larry Shue, who died in a 1985 plane crash only two years after writing “The Foreigner” and four years after penning his other comedy, “The Nerd.” One can only imagine the laughs he would have given us had he lived.

So, celebrate his life and talent and give yourself a laugh-filled night at the theatre by going to see “The Foreigner.”

With light designed by Alan Meadows, sound design by Mik Brown and Aaron Siler, and costume design by Stacey Greenawalt, ‘The Foreigner” is presented at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:20 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through Sept. 30 at the Performing Arts Center at the Cleburne Conference Center, 1501 W. Henderson St., in Cleburne.

Tickets — $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and students and $8 for children age 10 and under — are on sale online at www.carnegieplayers.org, or via email at cleburnecarnegie@gmail.com, or at the door.

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