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The Outsider is set entirely inside, in the spacious office of the governor of an unnamed state. Freshly resigned as the result of a scandal that sounds quaint by Trump-era standards—a consensual extramarital affair!—our recent ex-governor is never heard from, though his impressively blank visage stares out at us from an official portrait above his desk. My congratulations to the suitably imperious-looking model for the painting, whomever he is.
His lieutenant governor, Ned Neely—a budget wonk who wilts in the public eye but is hyper-competent at his job, which is, or was, to do his boss’s job without credit—is the character for whom this sweet, slight comedy is named. Settling tentatively into his old boss’s chair, Ned observes, “There’s nothing in this desk except plastic forks and soy sauce.”
As played with a wide-eyed fragility by Zach Brewster-Geisz, Ned suffers not from mere shyness, but by a social anxiety so debilitating he is struck dumb on live TV when the time comes for him to take the oath of office. His two staffers, Dave (a high-strung Michael Innocenti) and Paige (Lolita Marie, calm and capable), are left scrambling, for not entirely clear reasons, to sell poor Ned to a skeptical public before a special election to replace him is declared.
The central conflict in Paul Slade Smith’s warm comedy comes down to which of the new governor’s advisers will prevail: Dave, his Josh Lyman-esque chief of staff, who wants Ned to lean in to his wonkery and not worry about how he comes off on TV, or Arthur (the charismatic DeJeanette Horne), a campaigner-for-hire (whom costume designer Melissa Leigh Gilbert has dressed like a club promoter for some reason). Arthur wants to sell Ned to his constituents as a sort of Governor Gump: gentle, well-intentioned, and no smarter or more informed than anyone a New York Times reporter might deign to interview in a diner.
Also in the mix are Lulu (Keegan Artistic Director Susan Marie Rhea), a sunny-but-vacant temp who malaprops her way into a Sarah Palin-esque candidacy to replace Ned as lieutenant governor; Rachel (Rebecca Ballinger), an ambitious local TV reporter who chafes at her bosses’ orders to soft-pedal her coverage of the new administration; and A.C. (Kevin Adams), Rachel’s cameraman. He’s here for the late-in-the evening epiphany wherein he’ll tell us he doesn’t vote because all pols are equally lazy, dishonest, and unperturbed by the problems of a regular diner patron like him.
That last part in particular makes it impossible to overlook that, while The Outsider first appeared in 2015, its satirical payload is a generation out-of-date. Playwright Smith’s homily about how public office deserves and demands our best and brightest rather than the most relatable among us reflects a Bush v. Gore sensibility more than the vengeance-driven politics of the Trump era. (Indeed, he spends a lot of time—too much time—having the political impresario Arthur try to turn Ned from a Gore into a Bush.) But as farce, The Outsider is warm and satisfying in the way that wholly predictable comedy often is, sailing along on the enthusiasm of an appealing cast that director Ray Ficca has all playing in the same madcap key. That said, if Lulu’s inability to distinguish “a pollster” from “upholsterer” is not the sort of thing you’ll find amusing, this is not the show for you.
It’s a show for me, though. I appreciated the alacrity with which these actors committed to familiar comic archetypes, particularly the two Keegan veterans, Rhea and Innocenti. Rhea sells the the heck out of a one-note part, summoning genuine laughs from bits that barely even qualify as jokes, as when poor Lulu mangles or forgets someone’s name, is defeated by the hold button on her phone, or snatches a microphone right off the lapel of a reporter during a TV interview she’s already interrupted. Innocenti and Ballinger, meanwhile, give a burgeoning romantic attraction between them just the right note of clumsy possibility.
Their earnestness suits the material. In comedy as in politics, shtick abounds but skill matters. You get no points for pretending you’re too cool for your job.
The Outsider, by Paul Slade Smith and directed by Ray Ficca, runs through Sept. 24 at Keegan Theatre. keegantheatre.com. $45–$55.