Call Gov. Ned Newley the anti-Trump. He’s very good at his job, and has a deep understanding of how government works, and how to get things done. Yet the limelight is his Kryptonite. He doesn’t seem capable of making a public appearance without turning into a mumbling, quivering mess.
In other words, he’s the kind of guy who should always stay behind the scenes. But the premise of “The Outsider” — Paul Slade Smith’s very funny but not particularly sharp-edged political satire, which is now having its East Coast premiere at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn — is that he’s basically running Vermont, as its lieutenant governor, but then the governor has to leave office suddenly, after a sex scandal. Ned Newley rises to the top spot, where he not only has to run the state, but be in the public eye, too. And all hell breaks loose.
He can do the job, of course. He just can’t project the appearance of someone who can do the job. Plus — gasp! — he has no understanding of social media!
Lenny Wolpe plays the hapless but likeable Ned, with Manoel Felciano as Dave Riley, his overwhelmed, perpetually nervous chief of staff. Big-shot political strategist Arthur Vance (Burke Moses) and shrewd pollster Paige Caldwell (Julia Duffy) see the potential, though, in Ned’s awkwardness. He’s the ultimate outsider! And people love outsiders!
Meanwhile, Vance and Caldwell fall in political love with Louise Peakes (Erin Noel Grennan), a daffy, incompetent temp, just hired by Riley. She knows absolutely nothing about government — or anything else, it seems — but is able to ooze reassuring optimism like a champ. So naturally she becomes the favorite to be Ned’s lieutenant governor.
“If the public is searching for leaders who are absolutely, totally unprepared for elected office, I think we’ve found our dream team,” gushes Vance.
Rounding out the cast are Kelley Curran as Rachel Parsons, a somewhat cynical but not totally unsympathetic TV journalist, and Mike Houston as A.C. Petersen, her comically gruff cameraman.
It’s really an ensemble piece. Every actor gets one or more moments to shine, and makes the most of them. If I had to pick a favorite among the cast members, I’d probably go with Moses, who has a lot of fun with Vance’s larger-than-life bluster, and oiliness.
Despite its unflattering view of how political strategists work, though, “The Outsider” is, ultimately, a pretty tame satire. After all, Ned Newley is a hard worker, and really sharp: He’ll make a fine governor. And Louise Peakes, though dense, has some common sense, and a bit of a backbone. She’s not really the worse that we could do.
In another era, perhaps, “The Outsider” would pack more of a punch. But when what’s happening in Washington is more outrageous, more disheartening and more downright unbelievable than what we see onstage in a satire that purports to present an absurd extreme of what is possible, it can’t help but seem a bit tame.
“The Outsider” will be at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through Feb. 18; visit papermill.org.