Arts

Review: ICT’s ‘The Outsider’ Is an All-Too-Real, Hysterical Portrait of Politics

The cast of International City Theatre's production of "The Outsider" in Long Beach, CA. Photo credit: Kayte Deioma

The best comedies are the kind that incisively scrutinize real-life scenarios, drawing parallels and portraits that leave the observer kneeled over from laughter, but provoke in such a way as to inspire a change of opinion. International City Theatre’s The Outsider is as funny as it is unnerving because as much as it satirically examines U.S. politics, candidacies, and the accountability of power, it’s almost a documentary, reminding that nothing is odd enough to be untrue; in fact, life can imitate art, sometimes almost hyperbolically, as the 2024 presidential race has lamentably demonstrated.

Stephen Rockwell in the International City Theatre production of The Outsider in Long Beach, CA. Photo credit: Kayte Deioma

Artistic Director caryn desai [sic] has chosen the timeliest of plays, coinciding with the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and incumbent Joe Biden. Paul Slade Smith’s astute dialogue, published only six years ago, is perhaps more relevant now than it was then as curious bystanders stare bewilderingly at the incompetencies characterizing political speeches and soundbites. It’s become so pervasive that one might deduce that simple-mindedly indiscriminate verbiage is the politique du jour in terms of currying favor.

And you might be right, or at least wish you were right, upon seeing ICT’s production, calculatingly directed by Brian Shnipper, and featuring seven practiced performers who take full ownership of their roles and disparate motivations therein. The scenic design by John Patrick is the first visual cue that summons attention. It appears to be a perfect slice of an esteemed politician’s working quarters except this plush and trim space isn’t presidential; it is technically gubernatorial.

(L-R) Stephen Rockwell and Nikhil Pai in the International City Theatre production of The Outsider in Long Beach, CA. Photo credit: Kayte Deioma

Additionally, Crystal R. Shomph’s lighting, Dave Mickey’s sound, Claire Fraser Walsh’s costumes, and Anthony Gagliardi’s hair/wigs convey a sense of dignity, whether in a formal or casual manner; nevertheless, the juxtaposition of humorous (but accurate) assertions parallel to an avalanche of errors, set against the expected stateliness at hand, is a prime reason for the never-ending laughs.

The plot is uninterrupted in building momentum and empowering the farce that is initially teased at the outset. Farce, though, isn’t just a literary genre; it encapsulates the alternate universe of modern-day where silver linings are gobsmackingly crafted out of nightmares.

(L-R) Natalie Storrs, Susan Huckle, and Nikhil Pai in the International City Theatre production of The Outsider in Long Beach, CA. Photo credit: Kayte Deioma

Dave Riley is the upright Chief of Staff to Ned Newley who goes from Lt. Governor to Governor of a “small state” overnight because his predecessor “couldn’t keep his Johnson in his pants.” Notwithstanding that faux pas are a host of other issues: Newley’s swearing-in was a viral disaster because he fumbled and mumbled through it, appearing to be amateurish, when he is truly a misunderstood political genius.

Newley, who is already polling terribly, is also facing a special election that can oust him before he gets started on important budgetary items or otherwise. Consequently, Dave has supplemented his hitherto position as sole staffer with pollster Paige Caldwell and the sprightly, albeit comically blundering, temp Louise “Lulu” Peakes, specifically hired as the Executive Assistant to the Governor. Serendipitously, well-regarded political consultant Arthur Vance is compelled to help Newley by doubling down on his image as “just an average guy” because the best way to placate voters is by presenting a “leader who looks like an idiot.” Plus, “Why let the real idiots win?” The media, represented by self-aware reporter Rachel Parsons and her laconic cameraman A.C. Petersen, aid in the strategic charade, at least initially.

The cast of International City Theatre’s production of The Outsider in Long Beach, CA. Photo credit: Kayte Deioma

As Dave, Nikhil Pai has made a great first impression at the ICT. The charismatic Pai pulls off Dave’s idealism and motivation to serve honest politicians even if that results in being on the losing team. The camera-dodging Dave character also really comes into his own during the second act in response to shockingly screwy developments. Pai leads this transformation, which yields provocative questions like whether the public should be trusted with not voting against their own self-interest.

The ultra-personable Stephen Rockwell imbues Gov. Ned Newley with a humanity that is truly identifiable; he is scared stiff of public speaking and would rather shrink from the limelight so he can get substantive work done by crunching complex figures that come naturally to him. Doesn’t sound like your typical office-seeker, does it? This contradiction is what gives The Outsider (i.e., a fresh and relatable individual uncorrupted by politics) its intrigue, serving as the basis for a parade of chuckles. Moreover, as the audience soon discovers, the full essence of a human being can’t be summed up by index cards, no matter how snappy — a realization that endears Newley, augmented by Rockwell’s comforting tone in the midst of a winning monologue to his persona’s constituents.

(L-R) Taylor Popoola and Nikhil Pai in the International City Theatre production of The Outsider in Long Beach, CA. Photo credit: Kayte Deioma

The purveyor of these cue cards (even modified into an ingenious color-coded response system) is the slick but indisputably well-spoken Arthur Vance, portrayed by Jonathan Bray, who delivers so compellingly that the audience hangs on (and oftentimes nods to) his every word. Vance’s reputation as a presidential confidant precedes him, giving credibility to the claim that the “unqualified is the new qualified.” The Vance character, more importantly, offers a crucial point: Do political advisors have the responsibility to put forth the most practical choices for office, or is the name of the game to simply win, with the onus on the people to ultimately accept or reject at the voting booths? Vance is an advocate of free and fair elections; however, if all the choices put before voters are woeful, is the will of democracy not egregiously undermined?

(L-R) Stephen Rockwell and Jonathan Bray in the International City Theatre production of The Outsider in Long Beach, CA. Photo credit: Kayte Deioma

Louise Peakes, rendered with amazing flair by Susan Huckle, epitomizes the quintessential gladhanding official who incessantly fails upward with each election cycle. Huckle, though, is such a joy to watch as the candy-addicted, “always a first-timer,” and perpetually misunderstanding Peakes — with her over-the-top peppy walk and impeccably precise, in-motion arm swings — that she becomes more likable when other actors might have fallen short in this regard. Astonishingly, it proves Vance’s contention that “real” or “fake it till you make it” confidence, which might be better received if it’s undeserved and evinced through palaver, is what connects. Not to mention, Huckle’s Peakes particularly piques during an on-camera interview with Rockwell’s Newley in what is an uproariously Shakespearean case of mistaken identity.

(L-R) Susan Huckle, Natalie Storrs, and Jonathan Bray in the International City Theatre production of The Outsider in Long Beach, CA. Photo credit: Kayte Deioma

Natalie Storrs stars as Paige Caldwell who is passionately driven by polling results and the underlying causes behind strong focus-group outcomes. Storrs’s enthusiasm and aspirational cadence cresendoes enthrallingly alongside Bray’s approach.

Taylor Popoola depicts Channel 3 reporter Rachel Parsons who has scruples about having her line of questioning controlled and journalistic integrity usurped. Popoola effectively navigates her character’s courage to voice such concerns and does her part to capture Parsons’s chemistry with the equally ethical Dave. Last, but not least, Thomas Anawalt is the grunting A.C. Petersen who eventually opens up in a heartfelt exchange with Rockwell’s Newley. When Anawalt potently communicates many people’s genuine view of politics, it sheds light on the disillusionment affecting large swaths of the electorate.

(L-R) Stephen Rockwell and Thomas Anawalt in the International City Theatre production of The Outsider in Long Beach, CA. Photo credit: Kayte Deioma

Ultimately, to say that Paul Slade Smith’s The Outsider is brilliant in its storytelling would be an understatement. Interpreted as seamlessly as it is by ICT’s production, no work of art has better embraced, defined, and translated the state of head-scratching affairs saturating contemporary politics. In the real world, while this realization is mostly depressing, it is predominantly hysterical in this play — probably because there’s no mistaking the fact we’re watching actors perform.

That said, on a more serious note, the marvelous performances contribute to the crucial epiphany that “if we elect leaders like ourselves, then nobody will know what they’re doing.” The “outsider,” for all its assumed appeal, is actually wrong for the job when pondered for a moment. In lieu of propping up a political outsider on a false premise, we need people who intrinsically understand government underneath the distracting veil of the media circus.

International City Theatre’s production of The Outsider runs through only Sunday, June 30th. For more information, and to purchase tickets to the remaining performances, visit ictlongbeach.org/outsider.

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