Great comedies reflect their times. The Outsider delivers on that promise. It’s sharp political satire that mixes cynical political operatives, with a policy wonk, a well intentioned chief of staff, a rebellious reporter, an honest cameraman and a vacuous secretary. The Outsider, running at the Paper Mill Playhouse through February 18, offers loads of laughs no matter what your affiliation.
Some political satires can be eerily prophetic, remember Bob Roberts? The Outsider takes a different approach. It shines a comedic spotlight on some of the political tactics we’ve become so familiar with over the past 20 years.
Paul Slade Smith’s tale starts with the fallout of a governor who can’t keep it in his pants. Because of a sex scandal, his wonky lieutenant governor, Ned Newley, nicely portrayed by Lenny Wolpe, assumes the position. Ned is initially bumbling in front of the camera, but an endearing, astute and well-spoken numbers cruncher when he’s talking policy sans the spotlight. Wolpe does a fine job of balancing Ned’s nebbishness with his budgetary savvy.
Ned’s chief of staff, Dave Riley (Manoel Feliciano in a likeable and nuanced performance), is well-meaning, but knows he’s in over his head. Dave hires pollster Paige Caldwell (Julia Duffy, a veteran comic with great timing, who earned seven Emmy Award nominations while on TV’s Newhart show) to help him stave off a potential special election that would drive Ned out of office. Dave then hires Louise Peakes (Erin Noel Grennan, channeling Sarah Palin), a secretary who doesn’t know how to operate a phone, but quickly cleans out the candy bowl in the waiting room. Grennan hits it out of the park as the shallow, but sound bite spewing administrative assistant destined for greater things.
After seeing Ned’s deer in the headlights performance at his swearing-in ceremony, Paige knows she has an uphill road ahead of her, so she brings in political consultant Arthur Vance (Burke Moses is slick and spirited). Vance positions Ned as an “average guy” candidate, even dressing him in a flannel shirt for a TV appearance. Vance schedules an interview with a local news reporter Rachel Parsons (Kelley Curran) and her cameraman A.C. (Mike Houston) to pressure test his new project. To help him prepare for the interview, Vance gives Ned index cards with trite phrases such as “It needs fixing,” “We’ll have to find an outsider” and “It just takes common sense.” The interview takes an unexpected turn and the result is comedic gold. The situation snowballs, but still stays believable.
This small ensemble cast, directed by David Esbjornson, generates big laughs and gives us some great insights. The script keeps the play moving at a brisk pace by combining word play, surprises and exaggeration. Ned Newley is a political wonk, but he’s authentic and wants to serve the people. His conviction reminds us that knowledgeable and principled politicians can make government work. But in today’s polarized national politics, even competence and good intentions may be overmatched.
The Outsider at Papermill Playhouse – through February 18. Tickets here.