Solana Beach company is staging Paul Slade Smith’s comedy about a camera-shy policy wonk who suddenly becomes a governor
It sounds like art imitating life: A play about a seriously nontraditional politician landing in high office.
But Paul Slade Smith’s “The Outsider” is actually more like a bizarro-world version of our current state of affairs: Its central figure is no reality-TV veteran but instead a guy who is absolutely terrified of television cameras.
What Ned Newley loves is policy, and serving the public good. And when he suddenly becomes governor of a small U.S. state after the incumbent is felled by scandal, Ned’s ideals (and, maybe, his sanity) are destined to be tested.
That’s the story set to unfold when North Coast Rep stages the West Coast premiere (and just the third production overall) of the comedy beginning next week.
“The idea is to imagine someone who is in every way the perfect person to run a government, in terms of ability and knowledge and sensibility and attention to detail,” says Smith, chatting by phone from his New York home.
“In every way perfect — except for the notion of ever getting in front of a TV camera. Like, if the job only included him sitting at his desk with a phone, (he’d be fine). So pretty much the opposite of what we usually get with politicians, which is that they’re perfect in the publicity sense, but bad in every other way.
“The play sort of asks the question: What do we want in a leader?”
This is not the first play of Smith’s to land at NCRT. In 2015, the Solana Beach company staged his popular 2006 comedy “Unnecessary Farce,” a piece that recently marked its 275th production.
Now, NCRT artistic chief David Ellenstein directs the newer work, with a cast that includes Louis Lotorto, Max Macke, John Seibert, Natalie Storrs, Jacque Wilke, Christopher M. Williams and Shana Wride.
It’s been five years (and a few rewrites) since “The Outsider” premiered at Wisconsin’s Peninsula Players under the early title “A Real Lulu,” before getting a prestige production at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse in 2018.
But you can forgive Smith for the play’s delay: The man is also an actor, and as he spoke he had just begun a brief break from the Australian touring production of the Broadway musical “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” He plays the central figure of Willy Wonka in the show, directed by former Old Globe artistic leader Jack O’Brien.
Smith also did a stint in the musical’s Broadway production, and has appeared on Broadway in “Finding Neverland” and (most recently) “My Fair Lady” as well.
As a playwright, Smith admits he couldn’t quite have envisioned the current political era when he set out to pen “The Outsider.”
But “I‘m really proud of having written a play that is of this particular moment,” he says. “I set out at the very beginning to write a simpler play than I ended up writing,” noting that the story “could have lent itself to pure farce, about somebody who’s not where he’s supposed to be and has to try and be somebody else.”
“But working on drafts of it, I realized that if the thing that’s really important to this new governor is that government is well-run, then I actually have to make an argument that there’s a need for good government. And I have to make a clear argument for the difference between politics and doing the work of the people.”
True to the idealistic ethos of its hero, though, Smith adds: “It is a play with optimism.”
IF YOU GO: “The Outsider” previews begin Feb. 19. Opens Feb. 22. Opens Saturday. 7 p.m. Wednesdays (plus 2 p.m. March 11); 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays (plus 2 p.m. Feb. 21); 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through March 22. North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach. Tickets: $46-$57 (discounts available). (858) 481-1055. northcoastrep.org
— James Hebert is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune