SUMMER STARTS with a splash at the Olney Theater with "The Foreigner," a zippy, dippy comedy of bad manners by playwright Larry Shue. It's an absurd farce with uncommon good sense, a crazy quilt shot through with threads from "The Wizard of Oz," "I Love Lucy" and "Duck Soup."
"How does one acquire a personality?" asks Charlie Baker, whose own wife finds him "shatteringly, profoundly" boring. Charlie, a Britisher, is vacationing in the States, so friend "Froggy" Le Seuer, a suave demolition expert, deposits him for a weekend at Betty Meeks' Fishing Lodge Resort in backward Tilghman County, Georgia.
Besides being a snore, Charlie is painfully shy, and to avoid conversation, he feigns that he doesn't understand a word of English (even when it's real loud). And we're off!
They don't see many foreigners arond Tilghman way, so Charlie is endlessly exotic to the locals. Their reactions range from the comically exaggerated politeness of resort owner Betty Meeks; to the blind trust of ex- deb Catherine, who confides her darkest secrets (he's a good listener because he can't understand her); to the ignorance of wicked Owen Musser, who, as the town property inspector, is fixin' up a shady deal with the Rev. David, Catherine's husband-to-be, to shut down the resort so they can turn it into headquarters for their "Christian Hunt Club," aka the KKK.
Shue gives his convoluted plot more twists and bumps than a country road, and director Charley Lang has a skilled touch with the ingenious sight gags.
Silliness aside, "The Foreigner" has a touch of the morality play, as well as being a tale of how Charlie finds himself a personality and helps a bunch of other people locate theirs, too. And if you want to be really pushy about it, you could say Shue's show offers a lesson about how poorly we Americans deal with anything that seems strange to us. But mostly it's just a lot of fun.
As Charlie, Jack Gilpin gives a Monty Pythonesque flavor of dry daffiness to his predicament, and his gradually growing delight in Charlie's absurdly privileged situation is infectious.
The part of Catherine's brother Ellard, the dimwit who stands to gain a sizeable inheritance if only he can prove he's smart enough to handle it, is a particularly touchy role, one that could be unpleasant if mishandled. But Patrick Richwood carries it off with delicacy and sweet good humor. Both Richwood and Gilpin excel in a frenzied word-teaching scene borrowed from "The Miracle Worker," in which Charlie gives Ellard confidence in his own brains by allowing himself to be "tutored."
It's far from perfect: There are plenty of atrocious accents; the actors, excepting Gilpin and Richwood, shout their lines more often than not; and there are ample occasions for hold-it-right-there skepticism.
But the combination of good-natured performances, the weathered charm of James Waring's set and lighting, and Shue's sly, sunny comedy (which contains just the right touch of delicious nastiness), makes willing suspension of disbelief the order of the day.
In Charlie Baker's spontaneously invented tongue, the Olney's fine "Foreigner" is "Blosny, blosny!"