“The Outsider” at Paper Mill brings heart and comedy to the political scene

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"The Outsider"at Paper Mill Playhouse photos by Jerry Dalia.

I don’t care who’s running this November or for what — I want to vote for Ned Newley, the title character of Paper Mill Playhouse’s latest offering, The Outsider! This hilarious comedy is perfectly fitting for the political era we’re in, what with incompetent candidates drilled and polished to win over less-than-bright electorates and journalists not allowed to ask questions tougher than tapioca. And yet, The Outsider is a comic confection that’s lighter than a campaign balloon.

Playwright Paul Slade Smith has created a political farce perfectly suited to these times. The governor of an unnamed state has just resigned as the result of a sex scandal, as have his complicit staffers. The only one left is Lt. Gov. Ned Newley, a nondescript policy wonk now thrust into the governor’s chair.

"The Outsider"at Paper Mill Playhouse photos by Jerry Dalia.
“The Outsider” at Paper Mill Playhouse photos by Jerry Dalia.

The unknown genius behind all the former governor’s best policy plans, Newley is an absolute disaster when forced to speak in public. Ned’s faithful (and only) staff member, Dave, hires a female pollster to help his boss keep his new job, but when a high-powered political consultant volunteers his services, Ned is tutored in the art of being a politician the people will want — but at the price of hiding his own basic decency and competency.

Award-winning director David Esbjornson leads a first-class cast of farceurs in this fast-paced romp. Manoel Felciano is Dave, wanting his boss to succeed but unsure of the tactics that must be used to make it happen. Julia Duffy is Paige, the pollster seeing more values in a person’s numbers than in the person himself. Burke Moses shines darkly as Arthur Vance, the self-assured political consultant who sees in Ned a subject ripe for molding into the perfect man of the people. Vance’s perfect subject, however, is Louise Peakes, a dimwitted temp played to dizzying perfection by Erin Noel Grennan. Rounding out the superb cast is Kelley Curran as a TV reporter and Mike Houston as her nearly inarticulate cameraman.

"The Outsider"at Paper Mill Playhouse photos by Jerry Dalia.
“The Outsider”at Paper Mill Playhouse photos by Jerry Dalia.

Rising above them all is Lenny Wolpe’s magnificent portrayal of Ned Newley. Ned is that rarity — a politician who truly believes in the ability of government to provide those things for the people that they cannot provide by themselves, and who finds his joy in creating budgets and policy as long as he never has to appear in public. Wolpe’s characterization of Ned is a portrait in low self-esteem and total self-effacement coupled with basic decency and a common-sense approach to civil service. His is a performance to cherish.

Paper Mill Playhouse traditionally does one non-musical each season, and usually it is a comedic offering. For this season, they have come up with a definite hit that combines a sarcastic view of the business of modern-day politics with a surprisingly simple yet true idea of what good politics can be and can do. For an entertainment that’s both hilarious and oddly uplifting, do not miss The Outsider!.

The Outsider is presented by the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through Feb. 18, 2018. For tickets and information, visit papermill.org