Paper Mill’s ‘The Outsider’ takes broad sweep at politics

By Liz Keill

MILLBURN, NJ – It’s politics as usual…but with a twist. And on opening night the audience was eating up this slick new comedy by Paul Slade Smith.

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The plot centers on Ned Newley, who has suddenly been thrust into the role of Governor when the popular figure head had to leave office because of a scandal. Although Ned is brilliant at paper work and numbers, he’s all mumbles when it comes to speaking in public or on television. Lenny Wolpe, who has given numerous performances at Paper Mill, perfectly captures the nervous, befuddled worker who is suddenly thrust into the limelight.

His chief of staff (although there’s hardly any staff) is Dave Riley, played with emotions from frustration to almost elation by Manoel Feliciano.  His first mistake is hiring Louise Peakes, a temp, to be the office receptionist. Erin Noel Grennan is masterful in her malapropisms and total misunderstanding of what’s going on.

Burke Moses as Arthur Vance enters the scene to ‘take charge’ and program Newley to hide his smarts and come across as ‘an average guy.’ Paige Caldwell, a pollster played by Julia Duffy, also enters the scene. She and Vance initially have the same idea for Ned to be something he isn’t.

Kelley Curran is the sexy reporter, Rachel, who eventually realizes she’s being set up as well. Mike Houston as A.C. Petersen is the cameraman for the television interview that, of course, gets totally out of hand. Although the characters verge on stereotypes, the actors play off each other with conviction.

The comedy seems more reminiscent of the 1960s than today, without a cell phone or computer in sight. Still, it has shades of politics that we are seeing in real life. When LuLu (what her friends call Louise) runs for lieutenant governor, there are touches of Sarah Palin. When Ned is told to respond in general sound bites, it’s a little like listening to a politician who says words but doesn’t answer the question.

David Esbjornson has directed the show with sharp pacing, which makes all the difference in keeping the energy flowing and the actors moving at top speed. And ultimately, there’s something to be said for the way Ned finally comes across as someone who cares about the government and the good things that can be done for people’s lives. It could be much more cynical than it is, but perhaps this is a good time for a little heart-felt look at our society and how easily we can be manipulated.

Costume design by Elizabeth Hope Clancy and an imposing governor’s office designed by Michael Schweikardt add a sense of place

If you like your politics on the lighter side, this is the play for you. “The Outsider” continues at Paper Mill Playhouse through Feb. 18. For tickets, call 973-379-3737 or visit PaperMill.org.