Left to right: Jacque Wilke, Christopher M. Williams and Shana Wride in "The Outsider." Photo by Aaron Rumley
"The Outsider" manages to be political without being partisan. That's a feat. "The Outsider" also manages to make politics funny. That's a feat as well, particularly in these grim days when the political spectrum is downright depressing.
Paul Slade Smith's comedy adopts the premise that a timid, strictly behind-the-scenes lieutenant governor of an unspecified state is suddenly thrust into the No. 1 job after the governor resigns over an illicit sexual tryst (with a beauty pageant runner-up yet). To say that Lt. Gov. Ned Newley is reluctant and unprepared to take over is the play's grand understatement. But things change in a major way when an opportunistic and less-than-ethical political consultant flies in from the big city determined to not only mold Ned into a governor but into a political superstar. The catch: Ned is to be fashioned and presented as something between a rube and an "average guy" whose appeal is that he knows nothing at all about government.
North Coast Repertory Theatre is staging the West Coast premiere of Smith's 2018 two-acter, and it's funnier than even its premise may sound. Sure, there are a couple of dead spots in the storytelling here and there, but for the most part "The Outsider" is clever and blessed with some howling visual bits (best of all the live-TV interview with Ned and his dingbat secretary -- more on her in a minute -- that closes the first act).
Director David Ellenstein's got a marvelous cast, including North Coast Rep newcomer John Seibert, who makes a neurotic but likable Ned. Christopher M. Williams is sympathetically harried as Ned's able chief of staff David, who shudders at the shameless devices of the lauded political wonk Arthur Vance (Louis Lotorto, overplaying just a bit). Shana Wride is authoritative and wry as a pollster, Natalie Storrs sharp as a conscience-ridden newscaster, and Max Macke very good as a laconic TV cameraman who it turns out has a lot to say.
But this production belongs to Jacque Wilke, whose clueless but irresistibly perky Louise (aptly nicknamed Lulu) becomes the political consultant's prize project far and above what Ned Newley might have been. Wilke is a wonder to watch throughout, whether she's spouting ludicrous sentiments, demonstrating all that she doesn't know about working in an office, jockeying for time on camera, following Vance's choreographed color-coded-card responses to the reporter's questions, or just looking sweet and big eyed and happily vacant. She's costumed to look more than a little like Sarah Palin in Act 2, though Palin at her most energetic couldn't keep up with Lulu.
"The Outsider" also has a simple but admirable point to make about government and those who go in for governing, and it isn't made with a heavy hand. All the better for a comedy that for a couple of hours might make you forget what the insiders are up to.
"The Outsider" runs through March 22 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat