by Adam Cohen
Politics and theater have always made for strange bedfellows. And truly rich political satire, especially on a main stem stage, is fairly rare. Most political plays lean towards the biographical. Perhaps the last truly great political satire was Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man” and that was written in 1960. Paper Mill Playhouse’s production of Paul Slade Smith’s “The Outsider” is a timely, rich, satire that should engage audience’s for decades to come.
Larry Clark the sitting governor of the unstated state has been thrown out of office for sleeping with the runner up of a beauty pagent. His lietenant governor Ned Newley (Lenny Wolpe) – gets the nod for the bigger office. Ned’s a behind the scenes guy, comfortable with budget nuances, but not in the face of the public. And he’s the only one with no naked ambition – save for doing a good job for the people and balancing the budget.
Ned’s steadfast chief-of-staff Dave Riley (Manoel Felciano) has the delicate task of helping the new governor – a man he truly believes can do the job – keep it, build a staff, and avoid a potential special election that would sweep Newley to the political dump. He brings in shrew pollster Paige Caldwell (Julia Duffy) and one time political kingmaker Arthur Vance (Burke Moses) to shore up their chances.
Vance and Caldwell, craven instincts clearly and brilliantly on display, pledge to play to Ned’s weaknesses and their own to launch a campaign with the worst candidates ever.
The cast is uniformly excellent, agilely handling the deft script. Smith’s script veers from a “Who’s on First” word play with confusion over “a pollster” and “upholsterer” to knowing, sharp, arch, well-structured, drawing blood satire. Director David Esbjornson handles the proceedings with care and craft – fomenting big laughs while landing suave civics lessons in an engaging manner.
Duffy, who’s honed her one-line comedic instincts on “Newhart” and “Designing Women” generates honest enthusiasm for polling and politics. Moses is brilliant as the brash, craven, slick political kingmaker. Kelley Curran’s reporter is comely and astute. Wolpe offers a masterful turn – shy, bumbling, barely coherent, an able political puppet, and honest, hard working, wonk. He’s comedic and compelling, crafting Ned into a true man of the people with a unique, honest charisma. And Erin Noel Grennan debuts at Paper Mill with a hysterical, incompetent temp turned political pawn. Felciano offers a shrewd turn, evolving into his own political operative while retaining and championing his principals.
The Outsider shouldn’t work. And yet in the capable hands of the cast, author, and director, theater does what it always does – telling a compelling story in a humorous manner while striking up conversation. The Outsider wonders what a candidate and his staff’s principals should look like and how the media relies on the candidates for theater and content. It’s a thoroughly non-partisan, highly compelling evening that challenges us to consider how otherwise responsible individuals, politicians and journalists work to govern and what government and politics have to do with real life.
The Outsider continues through on Sunday, February 18 at Paper Mill Playhouse (22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ).
Photos: Jerry Dahlia