Theater review: politics is an inside joke
By Paul Slade Smith
Through Feb. 18
Paper Mill Playhouse
22 Brookside Drive, Millburn
By GWEN OREL
There are “Ned Newley” signs on many lawns in Millburn, and a whole slew of them near the middle school, near Paper Mill Playhouse.
Chris Christie, Phil Murphy and six other New Jersey governors participated in a YouTube video campaign for Newley.
That’s smart marketing.
If only Paul Slade Smith’s play, “The Outsider,” making its East Coast debut, were so smart.
Ned Newley is Smith’s fictional governor, a real policy wonk in the best sense, a lieutenant governor who suddenly becomes governor of an unnamed state when the charismatic governor gets caught in a sex scandal.
The thing about political satire is that it has to be up to the minute. When “Saturday Night Live” gets it right, it kills. Smith’s play debuted in 2015, and it feels its age: perhaps the play was prescient, but the public wanting someone “real,” not an insider, is not original or funny now.
That’s not to say there are no laughs: the big joke of the play, and it’s a good one, is that for all his awkwardness (Newley was so terrified during the swearing-in ceremony that apparently he never spoke at all, just trembled, leading to a viral video clip), Newley (Lenny Wolpe, so lovable in “The Baker’s Wife” at Paper Mill) knows his stuff inside and out.
He’s been covering for the former governor forever. He does Medicare and school budget numbers in his head.
The secondary joke, that a humorously incompetent yet relentlessly chirpy temp, Louise Peakes (Erin Noel Grennan), becomes a media darling because of the little she knows, is predicatable — even when we see her roll out platitudes with color-coded cards, by CNN-hire Arthur Vance (Burke Moses). (One color means say something patriotic, another means say something negative).
There’s a love subplot between Newley’s idealistic assistant, Dave (Manoel Felciano), and a cynical reporter, Rachel Parsons (Kelley Curran), a woman tired of taking orders from the boss to go easy on certain candidates. Paige (Julia Duffy) plays a smart pollster: she’s responsible for bringing in Vance. But she’s conflicted, too.
Lulu’s (Louise is called Lulu) well-meaning idiocy charms: “Just to let you know, phones are not my strongest area,” says the temp. Or, “There’s an upholsterer outside.” “A Polster.” “Upholsterer.” “A pollster.” “Er.”
The heart of the play, and its finest moment, is when bumbling, balding Newley explains what government really is to a disaffected cameraman.
Government, he explains, has to figure out how much salt to buy to keep the roads clear, how many trucks are needed. If nobody is doing that, “what do we do when it snows?”
It’s a nice way to rally behind the nerdy, less glam types who really should be running things. Director David Esbjornson does what he can to keep things moving. But most of the time, despite the giggles, you’re way ahead of this play. And when satire’s old news, it’s done.