Like some strange brew blend of VEEP, Noises Off and one of the late Charles Ludlam’s outrageously vulgar (and still sorely missed) Ridiculous Theatrical Company follies, Selina Fillinger’s all-female, star-packed political satire POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive is an occasionally glorious mess of a farce, sometimes chaotically funny and other times as what-were-they-thinking?? goofy as the last segment of a Saturday Night Live episode.
If POTUS, directed by Susan Stroman and opening today at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre, never quite rises to the level of those three influences – not as darkly clever as VEEP, as lightning quick as Noises Off nor as go-for-deliriously-broke as Ludlam – POTUS barrels through its weaker stretches on the contagious enthusiasm and in-it-together vivacity of a crowd-pleasing cast.
With a mostly female creative team – Beowulf Boritt contributed the excellent rotating set of White House offices that serves as the equivalent of all those Noises Off slamming doors – the first word out of POTUS‘ mouth is the one word that could be used for comic effect only by this all-women ensemble (and maybe vintage Mamet, but never mind).
The word is all but shrieked in disbelief by Harriet (a miraculous Julie White), the harried chief of staff of the president we’ll never see on this stage. Harriet is repeating (and screaming) the word in disbelief after learning that her boss has used the taboo vulgarity in public. We’ll come to expect such outrages from the unnamed POTUS, who seems to combine the charm of Barack Obama, the stupidity and incompetence of Trump and the sexual piggishness of Clinton. With a combination like that, POTUS needs all the behind-the-scenes help he can get – and he gets it from the seven women in his orbit:
- Harriet (White), the ultra-competent chief of staff who has been doing most of the presidential work – and signing most of his documents – for years;
- Jean (Suzy Nakamura), the press secretary as can-do as Harriet if not always totally in the loop;
- Margaret (Vanessa Williams), the savvy First Lady who knows to hide from the public the disdain she has for her cheating husband, and who is willing to play along with poll research that demands she be more “earthy” – hence the Crocs she wears and hates (and modifies with spike heels);
- Stephanie (Rachel Dratch), the hapless, barely competent secretary who never stops worrying about job security and only gradually reveals what she really has to offer;
- Chris (Lilli Cooper), a famous journalist who has a friendly relationship with the White House women but a nose for news nonetheless;
- Dusty (Julianne Hough), the gorgeous, young farm girl who has seemingly been invited to the Oval Office by POTUS himself and carries (ahem) some very personal news that could turn the First Marriage, the White House and the Free World upside down; and
- Bernadette (Lea Delaria), POTUS’ just-out-of jail, drug-dealing, trouble-making lesbian sister wanted in three countries and determined to resume her illicit pill-and-coke White House deliveries as well as her relationship with one of the aforementioned women.
So when these women converge on Pennsylvania Avenue, what could go wrong? Plenty, particularly on a day when POTUS publicly refers to his wife, in a meeting attended by world leaders, as a C-word (neither he, nor the seen-it-all women around him, prettify the term with abbreviations).
As in any good farce, that one crisis is just the start of a day that will include many more and many escalations. The POTUS also has a very painful, very delicate and very gross medical condition that’s resulted from some very specifically targeted sex play (an inflatable ring-shaped lifesaving device is offered as palliative care). And young Dusty’s happy news strikes the other woman as anything but good (what you think that news is, it is). And the nosy reporter is on to everything.
All of this builds to the (very cleverly staged) incident that brings down the first-act curtain and will send the second act into an ever spiraling crisis – for the White House staff, and, frankly, for the play: a significant stretch of ACT II loses all internal logic and devolves into ludicrous Weekend At Bernies nonsense. Dratch might be the only actress alive who can maintain an audience’s good cheer as she wanders the theater blood-smeared, draped in an American flag and ranting in the kind of comic drug-induced freak-out that bears no resemblance to any real life hallucinatory trip.
Nor does POTUS ever make the case as to exactly why all the post-intermission insanity is going on at all, dependent as it is on a conspiracy that involves all the women for a crime seemingly committed by only one. The result is one of those comically contrived and entirely frustrating dilemmas that could be swiftly cleared up with the simple utterance of a truth – “she did it!”
Fortunately, Fillinger (best known for her writing of Apple TV’s The Morning Show), does corral the craziness with some slow-in-coming fixes, and director Stroman keeps things moving so fast you’ll have only the occasional spare moment to let logic get in the way of the fun.
The cast, meanwhile, genuinely looks to be having the best fun in town. White, one of the stage’s great comic actors (The Little Dog Laughed, Gary: A Sequel To Titus Andronicus) uses her knife-sharp bark of a voice as a sort of aural embodiment of the chaos on stage, while Dratch goes all-out with the broad, TV-sketch comedy style that delights the audience whether it makes absolute sense or not. DeLaria and Williams, as POTUS’ foul-mouthed, ultra-butch queer sister and her ambitious, all-image sister-in-law, make a terrifically entertaining pair of combatants, and Nakamura and Cooper nicely hold down the saner aspects of the goings-on, at least until they don’t.
Perhaps most surprising is Hough, the longtime Dancing With the Stars pro making her Broadway debut with a winning performance as the not-so-ditzy rube who shows every last one of the powerful, accomplished politicos that she’s no brainless pushover. After answering her country’s call – or at least her co-conspirators’ call – to distract a couple Secret Service men the only way this sexually liberated Gen Z’er knows how, Hough deadpans with great dignity, “Hey! We all serve in different ways…”
Stroman’s musical theater instinct kicks in when she gives Hough a couple dance numbers that might not make complete narrative sense for this non-musical play but, well, so what? By the time Hough starts with the Boot Scootin’ Boogie, POTUS can lead us just about anywhere it wants to go.
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