The Outsider, Paul Slade Smith's political satire now making its East Coast premiere at Paper Mill Playhouse, digs within its farcical skeleton for moments of enlightenment about an election system that laughably prioritizes "Regular Joe"-charisma over practical knowledge. And perhaps the play's simple revelations — the ones where we learn why the proverbial "outsider" may not actually be the right person to operate the intricacies of government —felt more poignant during the play's 2015 world premiere when we could look back playfully on a political moment that amounted to little more than a series of Sarah Palin impersonations on Saturday Night Live.
Unfortunately, the concept of a political "outsider" is no longer associated with a benign punch line. Smith penned his play directly on the fault line between two political eras, and now that the fissure is complete, his send-up (directed by David Esbjornson) takes on a meaning that perhaps wasn't originally intended, but that now, in 2018, leaves us with a sour taste.
The Outsider starts with a sex scandal. The charismatic governor of Massachusetts has been caught in a lie about his affair with the runner-up of a beauty pageant. In the wake of his immediate removal, his mild-mannered lieutenant governor, Ned Newley (Lenny Wolpe), is catapulted to the big office (a luxurious headquarters with dark wood desk centerpiece designed by Michael Schweikardt). The only problem is he's a workhorse, built for crunching numbers in dark rooms, not for enchanting throngs of rallying supporters — and in this absence of charm, Wolpe is incredibly charming. He knows every nook and cranny of Massachusetts legislation, but in front of a camera, he falls to pieces. His chief of staff, Dave Riley, is in the same "good guy" camp — a man who always works for the noble loser and has come to terms with that career path (played by Manoel Felciano like your favorite upstanding nerd).
Suddenly, both Ned and Dave could be the ones calling the shots, but only if Ned can gain enough popularity to quell talks of a special election. Enter brilliant pollster Paige Caldwell (Julia Duffy) and famed political strategist Arthur Vance (Burke Moses), who together decide that the way to secure Ned's job is to convince the people of Massachusetts that he is a bumbling idiot. After all, who's more relatable than a man who knows absolutely nothing? Ned turns out to be less than convincing in this effort, but he is saved by the incompetence of his charming and empty-headed new secretary, Louise Peakes (Erin Noel Grennan), who fumbles her way into the position of lieutenant governor on her first day at work. Louise's lovable idiocy is pitted against Ned's humble intelligence — may the best candidate win.
From up close, it's an irreverent story that cleverly calls American voters on the carpet for their illogical voting practices, fueled by a scene-stealing comic performance by Grennan. But if you take one step back, you find yourself chuckling at a narrative about a pair of men saving our political system from the inept hands of a perky but brainless woman. In a country where men have historically had control of our political system and just over one year ago, a male "outsider" defeated an experienced female "insider," it feels shortsighted to present a story that requires us to root for an older man as he defends his rightful political space against the encroaching influence of a dumb secretary.
To be clear, The Outsider does not give the impression of setting out to undermine female intelligence. After all, pollster Paige is touted as the most brilliant person in the room, a spirit easily captured by Duffy's sharp performance. Unfortunately, she is rarely in the room, and when she is, her role is primarily to react to the bloviations of the brazen Arthur Vance, played by Moses with the arrogance of a thousand Gastons.
The only other female character is reporter Rachel Parsons (Kelley Curran, who is captivating when she drops the newswoman affectation). Rachel is assigned the Ned Newley beat, where she isn't allowed to ask any hard-hitting questions. She has her moment to heroically rebuke her corrupt overlords, but only under the inspiring influence of the principled Dave, whose integrity becomes infectious. She doesn't even get to be the one who inspires Ned's inevitable comeback performance. That important job is reserved for cameraman A.C. Petersen (Mike Houston), who, in his everyman flannel (costumes designed by Elizabeth Hope Clancy), reminds Ned of his dispirited constituents.
Regardless of intelligence, the women of The Outsider somehow become either afterthoughts or foils. It's a result not of malice but of a lack of conscientiousness on the part of both the playwright and director. Similarly, the cast, none of whose characters are written as racially specific, is bafflingly all-white. Perhaps The Outsider does reflect politics in 2018 — but far more in its actions than its words.