A screwball farce and powerhouse performers in ‘The Outsider’ at Keegan Theatre

If you look up the definition of farce, you would find something like this (from Wikipedia): “a comic dramatic piece that uses highly improbable situations, stereotyped characters and extravagant exaggeration.”

That definition fits The Outsider perfectly. This regional premiere at Keegan Theatre is a hilarious, despairing, and ultimately heartwarming look at the fragility of democracy and the venality of the politics we force “the people” to go through in order to have something that approaches democracy.

Rebecca Ballinger as Rachel Parsons, Susan Marie Rhea as Louise Peakes, and Zach Brewster-Geisz as Ned Newley in ‘The Outsider.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman.

To construct this farce, playwright Paul Slade Smith has adroitly put together elements of commedia dell’arte and 1930s American screwball comedy movies (think His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby) with dialogue that moves at the speed of a card shark’s fingers. With lines and plot that could have been lifted from Frank Capra movies like Meet John Doe and It’s a Wonderful Life, Smith plants his feet and ours firmly in the ground of the humble integrity of and hope in everyday people — our fellow human beings with whom we’re going through this apocalyptic mess.

Michael Innocenti as Dave Riley and Susan Marie Rhea as Louise Peakes in ‘The Outsider.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman.

A governor of a small state has been forced to resign because of his involvement in a sex scandal. His replacement is Ned Newley (Zach Brewster-Geisz), a competent man with a desire to do good and who is devoted to the idea that we citizens are capable of creating the lives we want if we work together. His coming into this office is that rare occurrence in our political system when, as another character notes: “the guy who should have the job, got the job.”

Unfortunately, Ned Newley is not able to do public speaking. At his inauguration, he freezes up in front of the camera and does not say a word for five minutes. In the wake of this disaster, the expectation is that Ned Newley’s opponents call for a special election to replace him. All of which makes sense to his aide, Dave Riley (Michael Innocenti), whose entire political history consists of supporting and working for competent candidates of integrity who lose elections or wind up in subsidiary, invisible, or powerless positions.

Enter Arthur Vance (DeJeanette Horne), who sees in Newley’s post-inauguration poll numbers a gold mine. When Vance watched Newley’s disastrous televised inauguration he saw the sort of vacuous candidate that he could turn into a lightning rod for votes. The poll numbers indicate that “the people” think that Newley doesn’t know what he’s doing. Vance sees those polls as an opportunity to give “the people” a chance to elect someone they want: not someone who talks impenetrable statistics, but someone who is “just like us.”

While the tug-of-war between opportunism and integrity is laid out by Vance and Riley, it is brought into gut-busting and gleeful actuality by Newley and the truly vapid, incompetent, know-nothing office assistant that the temp agency has sent over: Louise (Lulu-but-don’t-call-her-“Miss”) Peakes (Susan Marie Rhea). As Ned Newley points out, what Lulu lacks in competence and knowledge she more than makes up for in confidence and niceness. Susan Marie Rhea plays this with unshakeable enthusiasm, and she gets applause upon each entry and each exit with much laughter in between. After our first introduction to her, she is greeted by laughter with each entry before she even begins to speak.

Everyone’s performance works. And they all look like they are having as good a time as the audience is. Rebecca Ballinger is the shackled and manipulated (though elegantly, expensively, tastefully, and calculatedly dressed) journalist Rachel Parsons, who is harnessed with cameraman A.C. Peterson (Kevin Adams), who functions as an inarticulate (until he chooses to speak) representative of the economically depressed red-state masses. You just know he keeps his MAGA hat out of sight when he’s on a job. Both of them are a delight to watch.

Lolita Marie as Paige Caldwell and DeJeanette Horne as Arthur Vance in ‘The Outsider.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Lolita Marie’s Paige Caldwell, the pollster who has been hired to work for Newley, takes charge of the stage and the dramatic situation from the moment she enters. Her character is a good thermometer for the level of insanity that is occupying the stage at any given moment. DeJeanette Horne seems to be a big man. His Arthur Vance plows over everything in his way.

It is provocative that in this play entitled The Outsider, the characters of Paige Caldwell and Arthur Vance are played by African Americans. This does not feel like “color blind” casting to me. Both people by virtue of race are already outsiders to the American political setup. The characters are both in careers that are adjacent to power and politics and thus re-enforce the concept of what an outsider is and what effect that can have on the proceedings. Whether intentional or not, their presence in this production plays in a knowing way with the stereotypes of “the strong Black woman” and the “big Black man.” (Ray Ficca’s direction is detailed in fulfilling the metaphor of outsider and making it work on multiple levels.)

There are two Billy Wilder/Ernst Lubitsch meet-cute moments: Louise Peakes and Ned Newley’s first meeting allows us to see how her unquenchable enthusiasm can bring out the undamaged essence of someone — effecting a kind of healing. Governor’s aide Dave Riley and journalist Rachel Parsons have the more standard meet-cute, with each participant being in denial of and desire for a romance, which inevitably begins to grow.

Paul Slade Smith has provided us with a reliable clockwork piece of theater and Ray Ficca has cast it with a group of powerhouse performers and staging that make sure that each moment is achieved with perfect timing.

Running Time: Two hours with one 15-minute intermission.

The Outsider plays Thursdays to Sundays through September 24, 2022, at the Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets ($50–$60, with discounts available for patrons under 25 and over 62 ), call the box office at (202) 265-3767 or go online. Discounted rush tickets are also available at the door starting one hour before showtime.

COVID Safety: Masks are required in the theater unless actively eating or drinking. For the Keegan Theatre’s complete policies and procedures around keeping patrons, artists, and staff safe and healthy this season, visit their Health & Safety page.

The Outsider by Paul Slade Smith
Directed by Ray Ficca

CAST: Zach Brewster-Geisz as Ned Newley, Lolita Marie as Paige Caldwell, DeJeanette Horne as Arthur Vance, Susan Marie Rhea as Louise Peakes, Michael Innocenti as Dave Riley, Rebecca Ballinger as Rachel Parsons, and Kevin Adams as A.C. Petersen.

ARTISTIC TEAM: Mary Doebel (Stage Manager), Melissa Gilbert (Costume Designer), Dan Martin (Lighting Designer), Matthew J. Keenan (Scenic Designer and Master Carpenter), Cindy Landrum Jacobs (Set Dressing and Properties Designer), and Brandon Cook (Sound Designer).