Ah, politics. You can consider it either a serious process by which leaders are chosen or as a farcical comedy that results in incompetence, corruption or worse.
Playwright Paul Slade Smith opts for the hilarity of incompetence in “The Outsider,” his portrayal of the accession of a most unusual American lieutenant governor to the governor’s office as the result of a sex scandal.
The outsider is Ned Newley (John Seibert), an extremely competent pencil-pusher, researcher and formulator of political programs who lacks only one thing: the ability to communicate his ideas in public. He’s pathologically shy, and would prefer to have remained what he was – the power behind the throne – if only…
As the play opens, Ned – seemingly afraid of his own shadow – has become the governor of a small state, and now peeks apprehensively into set designer Marty Burnett’s expansive new office with a big desk, sofa, chairs and a huge photo of his disgraced predecessor on the wall.
Unfortunately, Ned has already disgraced himself at his swearing-in by his inability to speak coherently in public. He couldn’t even get out the “so help me God” part, instead muttering “help me.”
Now Dave Riley (Christopher M. Williams), Chief of Staff to a governor who has no staff, is trying to pick up the pieces. He’s great as the man who tries to make a successful governor out of mere competence. He’s recruited Paige Caldwell (Shana Wride), a savvy political operative and pollster, to help out. The first goal is to avoid a special election to name a new governor.
Then there’s the new empty-headed temp Louise Peakes (Jacque Wilke), who bops in with an impossibly sunny disposition. Unfortunately there is a reason she is more temp than most temps.
What would a political play be without a TV reporter? We’ve got one here in Rachel Parsons (Natalie Storrs), overqualified for the cable news job she has but great fun to watch when she comes in to interview Ned. She’s especially charming in tandem with her taciturn cameraman, A. C. Petersen (Max Macke), who says little, but when he does, it counts.
But how can they put this guy on TV?
It’s looking dark for Ned until a miracle occurs: Arthur Vance (Louis Lotorto), well-known political kingmaker, shows up, claiming “I will make Ned Newley into the most popular politician in the United States.” This is important, he says, because “if they like you, they’ll support whatever comes out of your mouth.”
Sound familiar? It’s meant to.
North Coast Repertory Theatre’s artistic director David Ellenstein helms this crazy production, which plays through March 22 at NCRT.
Ellenstein has found the perfect cast. Seibert’s Ned looks and acts like the kind of guy who’d be fine formulating great plans on paper in a small basement office where the only communication device is a desk phone.
Shana Wride is excellent as Paige, the competent, no-nonsense pollster, but it’s a shame the script doesn’t take advantage of her great comic abilities as well.
Lotorto’s Vance exudes confidence, even as he concocts a loony-sounding solution to the Ned problem. But can it work?
Wilke’s Louise keeps the guffaws coming, even exuding charm as she smiles and stumbles her way around the job.
The tech work is fine as well. Elisa Benzoni gives us some wonderful costumes, while Matt Novotny and Aaron Rumley handle lighting and sound designs.
Ellenstein gives this cast plenty of room to work their own individual wonders, and that was a good plan. They don’t mess it up.
Though “The Outsider” is comedy, it raises serious questions about the nature of American politics and what we want (and should want) in a leader. It’s worth the drive to NCRT to see this play.
“The Outsider” plays through March 22, 2020, at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach.
Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm