Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley
Thus the stage is set for The Outsider, a very entertaining new comedy by Paul Slade Smith, as New Jersey's premiere musical theatre, the Paper Mill Playhouse, as is often its wont, brings us a straight play for its mid-winter production.
Without giving away too much about the shenanigans which Smith has in store for us, Ned, Dave and Paige will soon be joined in the governor's office by Louise Peakes, empty headed and inept newly-hired temp for the unstaffed new governor; Arthur Vance, a successful, old pro national political consultant who wants in because he is certain that Newley's "outsider" ineptitude in front of the camera can be successfully marketed to voters nationally; Rachel Parsons, a cable news reporter better than the network which employs her; and A.C. Petersen, her everyman cameraman.
The delightful Lenny Wolpe is, as he always seems to be, at the considerable top of his game. In the particularly felicitous role of Ned Newley, Wolpe is in perfect control as he maximizes the laughter of Ned's farcical, slapstick antics without overstepping, so as preserve the credibility of his character. Erin Noel Grennan is absolutely spot-on as the ditzy Louise Peakes. Not only is her comic timing perfect, but she brings adorable, bright-eyed charm along with it. On the Paper Mill stage, Grennan is a modern-day Gracie Allen.
Julia Duffy fully conveys the no-nonsense street-smart snap of Paige with just the right overlay of humor and likeability. Burke Moses captures the humor of Arthur Vance's sleazy manipulator. However, it seems to me a mistake to make up Vance to appear sleazy. A contrast between a distinguished appearance (which I expected from Paige's initial description of him) and his true nature would add a meaningful dimension to the play.
Manoel Felciano (Dave Riley) and Kelly Curran (Rachel Parsons) make music together as the evening's contrasting ingenues. While Riley is as nervous and boyish as Parsons is confident and assured, Felciano and Curran make them a match. Mike Houston (A.C. Petersen) brings a delightful comic presence. It is notable that each of the seven roles is an important part of this ensemble comedy.
Director David Esbjornson has superbly integrated his ensemble and provided a fast, appropriate pace which maximizes the play's pleasures.
The Outsider ends up a pretty rich entertainment, but it is slow starting and a bit all over the place. However, it gets better and better as it progresses and can be enjoyed on several levels. Early on, there are vaudevillian, sketch comedy routines. Then, The Outsider plays like the rather old-fashioned insubstantial comedy that was a staple on Broadway for a time post World War II. Entertaining (especially with this solid cast), but insubstantial. However, somewhere along the way Paul Slade Smith manages to lightly and deftly layer into the comedy a substantial number of ideas, and you come to realize that you are thinking about substantial issues and applying them to the situations in the play.
Examples: Do political leaders lie to and manipulate the masses of voters (whom they consider ignorant), and actually only care about retaining their positions and pleasing the monied elites? Should governance and public office be limited to professional politicians? Is media biased and beholden to the power structure?
At the least, for those of us who are sick and tired of the toxic hatred that is so prevalent in what passes for humor today as well as the unwillingness of so many to respect a diversity of ideas, there is a freshness here that is all too rare today.
The laughter and interest in the characters also increases as this play progresses. The Outsider entertains whether or not you choose to cue in on its political substance.
The Outsider, through February 18, 2018, at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn NJ. Evenings: Wednesday and Thursday 7:30 PM; Friday and Saturday 8 PM; Sunday 7 PM. Matinees: Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 1:30 PM. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.