Fourteen months before the next presidential election, if you’re already tired of the 2024 campaign and the hyper-partisan, polarized world of politics, you can find great relief in the latest Circa ’21 production.
A hilarious and heartwarming story of loyalty and common sense in the nonsensical world of campaign politics, “The Outsider” opens this week and runs through Oct. 29. The style of author Paul Slade Smith’s play has been compared to that of the classic film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
Playwright Smith, whose stage hit “Unnecessary Farce” was the winner of 15 regional theater awards, has had more than 325 productions of his shows performed throughout the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Australia, Switzerland, Iceland, Singapore and Japan.
“The Outsider” focuses on Ned Newley, who doesn’t have any interest in becoming governor, but he’s thrust into the job. He’s terrified of public speaking; his poll numbers are impressively bad and to his ever-supportive Chief of Staff, Ned seems destined to fail, according to a synopsis.
But political consultant Arthur Vance sees things differently, realizing that while Ned might be the worst candidate to ever run for office, the public just might be looking for the worst candidate to ever run for office.
Starring as Ned is longtime Circa ’21 favorite Brad Hauskins, a 36-year veteran of the dinner theater’s performing waitstaff of Bootleggers. He was recently seen in productions of “Grumpy Old Men: The Musical,” “Disaster!”and this summer’s “Escape to Margaritaville.”
In the story, Ned was the state treasurer and lieutenant governor (for two years), who is forced into the state’s top job after the governor resigns following a scandal.
“He’s not comfortable with the artifice of politics,” Hauskins said Wednesday. “The need to be telegenic and eloquent on the spot. He’s a lot like regular people in the sense that, everybody’s afraid of public speaking.”
“What makes him different is, his knowledge of government is extensive,” he added. “He just isn’t a politician.”
“It comments on the idea of – what is a vice president? What is a lieutenant governor?” Hauskins said. “What do these people do and what happens to them when they’re thrust into a job nobody really wanted them to do? “
The show begins right after his swearing-in ceremony, which doesn’t go well.
Even though he’s a veteran actor, Hauskins identifies with Ned.
“We’re all real people – actors are all real people, and if you take them out of their comfort zone, where you have a script…and say who are you? A lot of them will lock up and not know what to say,” he said, noting Ned being lieutenant governor was his comfort zone.
“It’s not about any specific political ideology,” Hauskins said. “It doesn’t engage itself in that way, and very deliberately stays out of that world. It’s about the concept of government and politics.”
“It’s very good at staying away from that cringe-y sort of thing,” he said, concerned that the play may attack a certain political party or politician, which it does not. It doesn’t make fun of conservative or liberals (“Nobody wants that right now,” Hauskins said).
“It’s a play where we can celebrate the fact that we want something better out of our politicians,” he said. “Government should work and could work.”
Ned is not identified as Republican or Democrat, and no line of dialogue ever suggests any political ideology. Boughton noted that one line actually refers to that as “refreshing.”
Hauskins likened Ned to Jimmy Stewart’s idealistic character in the classic Frank Capra film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939).
“Also, like the movie ‘Dave’ – what would it be like if one of us became a leader and wanted it to be good?” he said. “That’s what his character is so excited about – that everyone will relate to him, because he’s just like everyone.”
No antagonists in the show
Cory Boughton, an actor from Asheville, N.C., is in his third Circa show, after “Shear Madness” (which also featured Hauskins) and “Boeing Boeing.” He plays Ned’s political analyst, strategist and cheerleader, Arthur.
“He sees something in him that’s very unique and it might be exactly what is going to work right now,” Boughton said.
In the play, they anticipate a special election to choose the next governor and they’re afraid of it.
“People are wanting him to succeed because they feel he’s got a unique opportunity to change the way that politics works,” Hauskins said. “They see that through this guy.”
“Every political analyst’s dream would be a candidate that could take the majority vote from both sides,” Boughton said. “That never happens, so that’s like a refreshing look.”
Kim Bogus, based in Portland, Ore., who performed with Hauskins in Circa’s “Grumpy Old Men” musical this past spring, plays an office temp who comes in because all the governor’s staff had left.
“They bring me in to help them get everything geared up,” she said, noting the story only takes place over two days.
“It’s a really smart play and it’s funny, and I hope people don’t avoid it,” Hauskins said, noting there is no antagonist in the play and that Ned is very positive and hopeful.
“If you’re a taxpaying citizen of this country, you’re part of this play,” Boughton said. His character makes great points about how government and democracy should work, Hauskins said.
“Everybody’s pulling for something good to come out of this, as opposed to having some villain come in,” he added.
Ned doesn’t change in the story, “he just emerges,” Hauskins said.
“They’re just showing him as he really is,” Bogus said.
“What could our leaders be, if we just trusted and listened to them?” Hauskins said. “It’s just about, what if we could say what we wanted to say, and cared about what we could do together?”
“It’s written really brilliantly, to be able to talk about as many things as it does, find the comedy in it, and to not offend the other side of the joke,” Boughton said. “That’s what’s amazing about it. There’s not a joke in here that offends anybody on any one side.”
Though it’s set in the present day, the issues addressed in the play are not hot-button, controversial topics.
“Instead of arguing about them, we decided to let people be who they are, say what they wanted to say – that’s the ideal side of it,” Hauskins said. “Being able to laugh at it, saying it’s not perfect, but it can work.”
Personally, he said he’d be afraid to go into politics, because of the “invasiveness” of campaigning.
“There is a line in the show, one character says, ‘No sane, intelligent person would ever want to go into politics’,” Hauskins said. “That’s part of how Ned emerges.”
American government started by literally picking the best qualified people to represent the public, Boughton said.
“What if it was sill that? What if the person that deserved the job understood the job the best, got the position?” he said. “That would be ideal. Why did that never happen?”
Hauskins said the cast has become very attached to the show and protective of it.
It’s unusual for him to do back-to-back shows at Circa, coming right off his role in “Escape to Margaritaville,” which closed Sept. 9.
“The Outsider” cast includes Bobby Becher, Elsa Besler, and Taylor Fryza, with the role of A.C. shared by James Burns (through Sept. 24) and Jason Platt (beginning Sept. 27).
Circa founder as director
Dennis Hitchcock, who founded Circa ’21 in 1977 and has been the producer for the Rock Island dinner theater ever since, is director for “The Outsider.” His directorial achievements for the venue have included “On Golden Pond,” “Route 66”and the area premiere of “Whodunit … the Musical.”
The last show Hitchcock directed was “Route 66” in 2015. Hauskins really enjoys working with him, both as head Bootlegger, and as an actor when Denny directs.
“As a director, he listens and really wants to make sure his actors are feeling like they’re succeeding,” he said. “A lot of directors have their minds made about everything. It’s their vision and that’s it, and that’s how you do it.”
“Denny says from day one, if something of mine isn’t working, tell me and we’ll fix it, and I appreciate that,” Hauskins said.
“I wouldn’t say that’s unusual, but there are definitely directors that tell you which syllable to move on,” Bogus said. “Denny is very open and that’s really nice to work with.”
Boughton and Bogus really like doing non-musical plays.
“It’s rare that a for-profit theater can afford to do a straight play, because they don’t have the same appeal – people don’t typically look at that and say ‘I gotta see it,’ compared to something like ‘Mamma Mia’,” Hauskins said.
“There’s a certain flow to doing a comedy, where in a musical, the characters and story are enhanced by the music, but they’re also sort of interrupted,” he said. “Musicals are also fun, just different. I wouldn’t say I prefer one or the other. They definitely are a different experience.”
Circa traditionally does one non-musical a year, but the Bootleggers (performing wait staff) does their musical pre-show regardless. For “The Outsider,” their pre-show is filled with a red-white-and-blue medley of America-themed songs.
It’s also a challenge for Circa since “The Outsider” (which premiered in 2015) is not a well-known play. “The audience has to find it,” Hauskins said.
In 2024, the non-musical is “Murder on the Orient Express,” the Agatha Christie mystery that’s much better known.
“The Outsider” will be presented at Circa ’21 through Oct. 29, with performances on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 5:30 p.m. and Wednesday matinées at 1:15 p.m. Pre-show entertainment featuring The Bootleggers will precede all performances. Ticket prices are $60.55 for the evening dinner-and-show productions, $53.73 for the matinées.
Reservations are available through the Circa ’21 ticket office, at 1828 3rd Avenue, Rock Island, or by calling 309-786-7733, ext. 2.