Paper Mill Playhouse’s The Outsider: Who Will You Vote For? The Smartest or the Most Charming?
The new play taking over the stage at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., The Outsider, starts out simply enough in the grand office of the Governor. The smug smiling man in the portrait hanging above the impressive desk, courtesy of an expert design by Michael Schweikardt (Goodspeed’s La Cage aux Folles), is just the kind of man America seems to like in a politician; handsome, seemingly charming, and most likely very personable. But this biting political satire by Paul Slade Smith (Unnecessary Farce) has a few ideas to play with in this realm. America, it seems, may have it all wrong in who they want to elect to lead them. Take for example, Bush JR, who got elected because people felt he was the kind of man they’d feel comfortable having over to their backyard BBQ for a beer and a burger; a simple man who had a twang in his voice and a wink in his eye, and not too many brain cells in his head. Tweaking that concept even further, for some reason very unfathomable to me, the people (not the majority, mind you) of America felt a similar kinship to the Orange Monster that currently occupies the Presidency of the United States, even though he is nothing like the good ol’ Christian boy that some think he is. Interestingly enough, playwright Smith, who also starred on Broadway in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Finding Neverland (original casts), wrote this play before our current president was elected in 2016, but the argument he puts forward about the strengths and differences between likability and qualifications is as important as ever.
This very funny play follows Ned Newley, played to perfection by the very likable Lenny Wolpe (York’s Marry Harry), perhaps the most unlikely politician ever to be granted a position within an elected government, is suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into the very public role of Governor when the current one is forced to resign due to a sex scandal involving a runner-up at a beauty pageant (the joke about that is priceless). Though he possesses all the knowledge and experience of the law and governance, he doesn’t have the charisma or the smiling confidence of an elected official that the public can get behind. Not that Newly couldn’t and wouldn’t run the state better than the blowhard that was recently forced out, as it seems he was doing that already, but he does lack the public persona that would allow him to remain in the office of the Governor. Unless of course, others can come and save him from himself. Or should they?
Desperate to allow him to remain and do the good work he is so capable of doing are two very different political animals; consultants that are going to work very hard to keep him from being discarded. Paige Caldwell, played by the magnificent sharp and funny Julia Duffy (PH’s Rancho Viejo), is the straight forward pollster who wants to make sure whomever she works for wins. She is brought in to the office by a desperate Dave Riley, played to perfection by Manoel Felciano (Broadway’s Sweeney Todd, Amélie), who is the man who backs the ‘good guy’ over the ‘guy who could actually win’, almost every time. Throw in a smooth talker political operator, Arthur Vance, played impressively by Burke Moses (not surprisingly, Gaston in Broadway’s Beauty and the Beast), a feather brained temp, Louise ‘LuLu’ Peakes, hilariously played by the expert Erin Noel Grennan (Cincinnati Playhouse’s Reckless), a reporter, Rachel Parsons, who’s tired of being told not to ask too many questions, played wonderfully by the impressive Kelly Curran (Broadway’s Present Laughter), and a camera man, A. C. Petersen, played by the solid Mike Houston (“Orange Is The New Black“), who doesn’t have much to say to anyone, until he does, and we are off to the races in this very funny critique of America and the politicians they seem to embrace.
Directed with precision and a great sense of comic timing, David Esbjornson (Century Center’s The Play About the Baby) leads these fine actors through a wild ride of satirical proportions commenting on politics in America with almost a heart-stopping and stomach-churning accuracy that at moments made me squirm in my seat. I wish many of the accusations made would not be so true, but sadly they are. In many ways, this truth telling is what made this play such a funny satire with a lot to say about what governing actually means and should look like. Never quite sure where this story is heading at any given moment, The Outsider works very well indeed. It could use a bit more of a nasty bite in the end, giving way far too easily to a happy sweet ending, but overall, it will leave you feeling quite good, and content for having a good laugh at how crazy those ‘other’ Americans must be, especially those that voted for the horrid reality T.V. star that currently resides in the White House.