Wildly funny political satire ‘The Outsider’ exposes sorry secrets of electoral appeal
From left, Thomas Anawalt, Jonathan Bray, Nikhil Pai, Stephen Rockwell, Susan Huckle, Taylor Popoola / Kayte Deioma

LONG BEACH, Calif. — Politics these days is hardly a laughing matter, but there’s always a privileged spot for satire irrespective of how grim the forecast. In the case of Paul Slade Smith’s The Outsider, I guarantee you a night of timely hilarity that will teach you a whole lot more about the way politics works in this country than you ever learned in civics class.

In the half-dozen years or so since the play first hit the boards, The Outsider has seen 125 productions, an astounding tribute to its merit as a theatrical property. It speaks to the troubling question of how what might seem to you and me as glaring, irredeemable flaws in a candidate are actually just what the political moment calls for. Yes, the perfect contender (or shall we say, the most electable one) is precisely the one who, in the bumbling, inarticulate, exuberant word salad that emerges from their mouths, seems to a jaded electorate the least scripted and the most “relatable”—“real” and “authentic.”

Could it be that the smart political wizards lurking in the background have actually determined that that’s what the public is looking for? Readers will come up with their own favorite examples of the kinds of candidates Smith is poking his verbal daggers at, but suffice it to say that the play premiered after Donald Trump had been in office for a couple of years.

The person I actually thought most of was the cognitively impaired Sarah Palin, who, if her running mate John McCain had won the 2008 election, would have stood a heartbeat away from the presidency. That thought alone, I am convinced, got the less well-known, relatively inexperienced Barack Obama elected.

Though its “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” message may seem directed against Republicans, people of all political stripes can enjoy the play. For those on the political right are equally convinced that the liberals and progressives “funded by George Soros” are also just babbling the latest talking points from drag queens, Black Lives Matter, and the pointy-headed intellectuals of academe.

Stephen Rockwell and Thomas Anawalt / Kayte Deioma

The premise of the play is that the previous governor of this small state has been forced to resign because of a sex affair. His oily, garish, grinning red-tie portrait still hangs over his desk. The pathologically timid lieutenant governor, tongue-tied Ned Newley (Stephen Rockwell), selected because he’s an efficient policy wonk but whose mousy temperament offered no threat to the ebullient, now defenestrated politician, is now almost unbelievably the governor but is subject to a special election. A boisterous cast includes the governor’s pollster Paige Caldwell (Natalie Storrs), Newley’s chief of staff Dave Riley (Nikhil Pai), a hot-shot political consigliere Arthur Vance (Jonathan Bray), who grasps how perfect Newley would be, “real” as he is, for the governorship and maybe even for national office. There’s the clueless ditz Louise Peakes (Susan Huckle), known familiarly as Lulu (and is she ever!), a terminal maladroit who appears as a one-day temp receptionist and improbably (“I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m confident”) leaps to prominence under Vance’s sagacious guidance. Finally, there’s the compromised media in the person of TV reporter Rachel Parsons (Taylor Popoola) and her grunting cameraman A. C. Petersen (Thomas Anawalt), representing the common man.

Brian Shnipper directs the three-week run through June 30 at Long Beach’s International City Theatre in the play’s Los Angeles County premiere. If you’re not within striking distance of Long Beach, check out some of the play’s other scheduled productions later this year: The Chicago-area premiere, at Buffalo Theatre Ensemble, opening September 5, the Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota, opening July 24, and Act II Playhouse in Ambler, Pa., opening October 8.

The acting and direction are split-second superb, combining the most fun features of the comedic sensibility—word play, physical acrobatics, vaudevillean inanity, absurd costume, set and prop design, and situation. Especially laudable in this half-circle staging is the much needed articulation of every syllable needed for full comprehension.

A critical role is played by Arthur’s colored flash cards that his candidates can glance at and formulaically switch up the mood from serious, to hopeful, to patriotic, to winning. A running theme is that the problems of society are so complex and deep that only an outsider, an average citizen with common sense and with no preconceived notions or personal investment in the status quo can fix them.

Mark Shanahan, interviewing the playwright, asks: “The Outsider is a sharp political satire, but it has a wonderful, heartfelt message about the value of public service. Given the current, divisive political landscape, what keeps you hopeful?”

Smith responds: “The secret I always honestly share is: I didn’t set about to write a play about the value of government, of democracy. But once I was writing a plot in which, by necessity, these were the things my protagonists were frantically fighting for, I realized that I had to define these concepts—and then imagine how to explain them to someone, at a simple, elemental level. And what I’ve discovered is: the explanation Ned gives truly speaks to audiences everywhere, regardless of their political bent. That’s proven true in productions in red counties, blue counties, everywhere it’s played. And the fact that there is a statable, definable goal—a thing we all want government to be…that’s what gives me hope.”

If I were to name the one thing I would have liked more of in the play, it might be greater clarity about where the funding comes from for such flawed candidates. I recognize, though, that for its broad comedic appeal, this could be divisive and unwanted. I guess what I am saying about funding is not really about the play itself but a plea for more disclosure about our elections, period. We have Citizens United to thank for the outrageous influence of money in the electoral process, not to mention the both-sidesism of much of the horse-race media. Starting with the Electoral College, the outsized power given to the states, gerrymandering, voter suppression and much more, there is plenty of work to be done to make our vote more fair and democratic (with a small “d”).

The creative team for The Outsider includes set designer John Patrick, lighting designer Crystal R. Shomph, costume designer Claire Fraser, sound designer Dave Mickey, and prop designer Patty Briles. Casting is by Michael Donovan and Richie Ferris. The stage manager is Pat Loeb.

The Outsider runs through June 30 on Thurs., Fri. and Sat. at 7:30 p.m., and Sun. at 2 p.m. International City Theatre is located in Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center’s Beverly O’Neill Theater at 330 East Seaside Way, Long Beach, CA 90802. For more information and to purchase tickets, call (562) 436-4610 or go to the company website.

Whoever you voted for in the last election, and whoever you plan to vote for this November (and I beg you, please don’t sit this one out!), you will be the winner if you manage to catch this play before it closes, wherever you may chance to encounter it.

Click here to read an interview with playwright Paul Slade Smith. Click here to listen to the interview with director Brian Shnipper at Hollywood Report Card. Click here to watch the interview with actor Stephen Rockwell on The Actors Choice.

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.