by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & hat if we were really popular instead of just shy? What if we could unlock other people's secrets? Larry Shue's farce with a heart, The Foreigner, combines the appeal of these questions with slapstick and verbal humor to create a perennial comedy. While Shue's play suffers from clunky exposition and from hammering its moral of self-discovery too hard, it's receiving a diverting production at Spokane Civic Theatre (through April 20) that's uneven but mostly entertaining.

It's a fish-out-of-water story in which the fish decides to try things out up on dry land for a while. A shy Brit finds himself in a backwoods Georgia hunting lodge pretending that he speaks no English. (Discovering why he decides to do so -- and how he maintains the ruse -- accounts for most of the fun in Shue's script.)

This is a strong ensemble in which nearly all the actors are effective nearly all the time. As a country preacher with a dark side, Jaylan Renz combines slick talk with the slithering movements of a snake oil salesman. As an ex-debutante, Kari Severns channels Jean Smart in Designing Women, alternating between comic consternation and vulnerability. Andrew Biviano gets beyond the Southern-dimwit-hick-with-a-heart stereotype, finding his way in Shue's script to justifiable resentment at others' condescension and some salt-of-the-earth cleverness. And even if it's a throwback, Troy Heppner's characterization of "Froggy" LeSueur -- British military, stiff upper lip but mischievous -- is amusing for the way Heppner pulls off slow burns of befuddlement, then rebounds with cleverness and good cheer.

As the heavy, Will Gilman is effective at throwing his weight around and voicing repulsive attitudes, though he needs to erase that bemused expression when his good ol' boy character becomes the butt of other people's jokes. Kathie Doyle-Lipe, however -- as the little old lady who runs the place (and has apparently never been outside small-town Georgia, so enthralled is she with the prospect of a real live foreigner) -- overdoes the Hee Haw mannerisms. Betty's various enthusiasms don't require that much head-waggling.

In the title role, Joe Vander Weil is delightful in displaying the giddiness of a reticent man finally figuring out this business of "acquiring a personality." He should work on the setup, however: Despite the bowtie and conservative duds, Vander Weil is never really convincing as a man so consumed with shyness and low self-esteem that he'd agree to a deception that puts him in the position of eavesdropper and freak. And some of Charlie's second-act newfound fluency in English seems too polished. But Vander Weil's expressive face, gangly dancing and histrionic babbling in a made-up language create several laugh-out-loud sequences. Charlie has such good (if unexpressed) emotions that we're rooting for him, and Vander Weil's confused, reticent expressions over on the sidelines (when he's compelled into silent-eavesdropper mode) are a joy to watch. While he stepped on about three laugh lines during the first act on Saturday night, Vander Weil and the cast will learn over the course of the run where the chortles reliably come, making that problem likely go away.

Director Wes Deitrick's casting and the costumes of Susan Berger and Jan Wanless make for comic contrasts: military khakis vs. argyle sweaters, dingy overalls vs. tweed jackets, early '80s neon-print dresses vs. Grandma's floor-length wool skirts; fat/skinny, tall/short, Mutt/Jeff. David Baker's set design for the hunting lodge interior creates a sense of backwoods seclusion.

Shue created a well-made play back in 1983, so pay attention to the professions, props and personalities introduced in the early going: They're sure to pop back up again. There are several very funny sequences that involve pink plastic cups, foreign-language instruction and an allusion to the Wicked Witch melting.

Shue's farce, moreover, isn't divorced from reality. With personal sadness and racist greed co-existing alongside silly improvised dancing, The Foreigner shows us both ugliness and joy. Deitrick's production allows all of that room for expression. It may be overlong for comedy and it may miss some of its laugh lines while straining too hard to underscore others, but the Civic's Foreigner is amusing and even hilarious often enough to remind playgoers of why Shue's farce has become a staple of American playhouses.

Northwest Winterfest @ Spokane County Fair & Expo Center

Through Jan. 2, 2022, 5-9 p.m.
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