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Review: International City Theatre’s ‘The Outsider’ plays up the farce of politics

The 2015 comedy will play through June 30 at the Beverly O’Neill Theater.

Review: International City Theatre’s ‘The Outsider’ plays up the farce of politics
A scene from Paul Slade Smith’s “The Outsider.” Photo by Kayte Deioma.

It seems likely that whomever we elect to our highest office in November will either be the more charismatic (to some) but less qualified (to others) politician, or the opposite — a dedicated and competent public servant who may not do as well in front of a camera.

Paul Slade Smith’s 2015 comedy “The Outsider” — continuing at International City Theatre (ICT) through June 30 — plays up the contrast between two such personalities in a state governor’s office. Through an increasingly funny farce, we see how easily we are swayed by soundbites, and how much it may matter to value getting things done.

Quiet but uber-competent Lieutenant Governor Ned Newley (Stephen Rockwell) must suddenly take over as governor after his predecessor’s unceremonious ouster. His political aide Dave Riley (an expressively nebbish Nikhil Pai) does his best to ease Newley in while managing the expectations of ratings-obsessed pollster Paige Caldwell (Natalie Storrs).

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Directed by Brian Shnipper, comedy in the early scenes depends on fast-talking banter between Riley and Caldwell with sight-gags involving Newley trying to sneak unseen into the imposing office (scenic design by John Patrick) and sinking way down into the governor’s chair before Riley can adjust it.

Riley has also hired temp Louise Peakes (Susan Huckle) to answer phones and usher in visitors until the office can be re-staffed — except that the perky Peakes proves not only incompetent at simple tasks but believes it’s a great sign of her skill that she is reassigned from one temp job to another almost daily.  She also thinks her temporary job is more like “Assistant Governor” than “assistant in the governor’s office,” not seeing the difference.

Nonetheless, the shy Newley finds Peakes utterly charming. And so does hotshot political strategist Arthur Vance (a suave Jonathan Bray), who flies in as soon as he sees a viral video of Newley unable to speak while being sworn into office, believing him to be the next man of the people whom American voters will love.

A scene from “The Outsider.” Photo by Kayte Deioma.

But after Peakes hilariously video-bombs a recording of Newley designed to present him as an average American man speaking from one-sentence cue-cards, Vance realizes it’s the vibrant but vapid Peakes who can be shaped into a viable candidate for Lieutenant Governor—and beyond.

While the first act takes a lot of words to introduce personalities and set the stage for what could possibly happen next, the payoff is in the more rollicking second act as the office crew executes Vance’s campaign strategy.

During a candidate interview with savvy journalist Rachel Parsons (a poised Taylor Papoola) with her cameraman A.C. Petersen (Thomas Anawalt), Vance uses color flashcards to ingeniously direct Peakes (running as “Lulu” with the slogan “She’s just like us!”) on what to say. A red card means Peakes has to say sympathetic negative statements like “Times are tough” while blue means to spout patriotisms like “But I believe in the American way!”

Though Parsons sees how Peakes doesn’t substantially answer her questions, the audience may hear how our own candidates’ rambling speeches and interviews are not all that different in tenor and substance. In this way, the play calls attention to our willingness to dummy down our thinking in the presence of charismatic emotional figures.

A similarly resonant scene has Newley finally finding his voice in capably describing what it is that government actually does every day to the cynical everyman A.C., without any overblown patriotic histrionics.

Both scenes are well delivered, helping the play make a serious point about what we value as voters. It also helps that the actors are well cast in their respective roles (casting directed by Michael Donovan and Richie Ferris), reflected well in their costuming (designed by Claire Fraser). Huckle especially shines as Peakes, brightly owning in pink and orange her every moment on stage and not missing a beat during the color flashcard scene.

Just as the crowd responds like sheep to Mark Antony’s rhetorically manipulative speech in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” (“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”), we too are susceptible to what our politicians say and how they say it. “The Outsider” offers a hilarious (if a bit verbose) diversion reminding us to keep our thinking caps on when voting, even while we make fun of the other guy.

International City Theatre’s “The Outsider” continues through June 30 at the Beverly O’Neill Theater, 330 E. Seaside Way, Long Beach, with shows Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $49 to $52 and can be purchased by calling 562-436-4610 or visiting ICTLongBeach.org. Run time is 2 hours and 15 minutes, including intermission.


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