The thing with farce is the doors have to keep slamming, and the general sound and fury needs to stay at the level marked: “This pan is about to boil over.”
Selina Fillinger’s POTUS, (Shubert Theatre, to Aug. 14) about seven women in the backrooms of the White House trying to save the unseen male president from himself, has extremely funny, sustained moments of pan-meets-frothing-boil and then moments when the dials are turned down, and proceedings lightly simmer. These quieter stretches are not fatal—you just want the comedy to return to its delicious nuttiness; as its subtitle has it: “Or, behind every great dumbass are seven women trying to keep him alive.”
In its all-female character and cast, Fillinger dedicates the play as a counter to the historic sexism of the genre: “For any woman who’s ever found herself the secondary character in a male farce.” This the play absolutely succeeds in doing, and amid the lunacy and laughter also has some important things to say about women, power, and the lack of proper rewards for hard work and even harder-won achievement.
It is just another day in the White House for frenzied, overworked and under-rewarded chief of staff Harriet (a peerless, award-nomination-deserving Julie White), tightly coiled press secretary Jean (Suzy Nakamura), and Margaret, a first lady resigned to act as “earthily” as possible (Vanessa Williams), and not shine too much as her education and professional achievements should ordinarily allow. Fans of Fleabag, Veep, The Thick of It, and Succession will immediately feel at home in POTUS’ world of swearing (“Fuck shit balls”), blunt innuendo, and profane insults (“Get off my dick”).
Stephanie (the excellent Rachel Dratch), the president’s secretary, is trying to marshal authority through mantras, a series of empowering arm movements, and a “Bitch Beats” CD. Journalist Chris (Lilli Cooper) is attempting to find a scoop while also lactating and warding off colleagues’ sexism. That story could come care of Dusty (Julianne Hough), young, nubile, and wanting to see the president for all the most predictable reasons, or Bernadette (Lea DeLaria), the president’s swaggering sister, fresh out of jail, and with goodness knows what in her backpack. “She’s wanted in three countries!” Margaret says, contemplating her husband’s desire to pardon his own sister.
The play begins with a bellowing of “Cunt!” by Harriet, which both emphatically centers the gender focus of the play, and sets up a recurring joke about the first erupting PR nightmare, the president allegedly saying to a group of journalists and diplomats: “Please excuse my wife’s absence. She’s having a cunty morning.” The rest of the day is already giving the growling Harriet palpitations: nuclear non-proliferation talks, two maimed and blinded veterans, an “FML gala”—which Harriet sees as meaning Female Models of Leadership Council. (Jean begs Harriet to add a C to the end of that.) The president also has an abscess on his anus.
As with the best farces, the language, smut, and misunderstandings start to flow and surreally segue fast, such as talking about the “rough ass play” that the president may like and the “right hand” Harriet is to him, “but not for that activity,” she insists. The set revolves to reveal offices, press room lectern, and ladies’ room; the characters disappearing into unseen corridors. The pacing of the revolving setting can give POTUS, directed by Susan Stroman, a sitcom-y or bitty, sketch comedy feel; the longer scenes, and the bigger set-ups for the laughs, work better on stage.
Soon, the wild and wacky situations start piling on each other in the best, most excruciating ways; can Dusty (who can’t stop puking her lividly blue slushy), be kept hidden, and if she can’t be hidden, can her sexual prowess when it comes to oral sex be used to full advantage? Bernadette has some iffy drugs with her, which Stephanie takes, giving Dratch the opportunity to act spaced and crazy to the general delight of the audience; will wild Bernadette rekindle her relationship with buttoned-up Jean?
The stage becomes a cauldron of merry chaos, leading up to a thuddingly silly act one cliffhanger. Act two treads water somewhat, as all the energy of will-x-discover-y and demented set-ups of the first act start to leak away into a general mélange of procedural silliness. This second half loses the zany drive of the first. Dratch and her expressions and physical comedy can make anything funny, but it is a waste of her talents to keep her as high as a kite for as long as the play does.
The second act also leans into the play’s more sober messaging. Why are these women dedicating their professional and personal lives to this man’s presidency, when their brilliance, singularly and collectively, outshines his? The twists and turns will go unspoiled here, but the joke of Margaret wearing the ugly shoes she does is also a telling indictment of sexism: “I’ve launched free lunch programs in 6,000 public schools but all Twitter can twat about are the stilettos I wore to one homeless shelter.”
Although done to maximum hilarity, each of the women contributes to saving the day in POTUS (Hough has some particularly sharp one-liners to ensure her character is not dismissed lightly). Fillinger not only shows the carnival of ingenuity that brings the women together, but also the inevitable punishment for brilliance that women face. It is Harriet left on the stage at the end of the play (although stay after the final lines for a fun singalong). Keep an eye on White’s expression. It tells you that beneath the farce, POTUS has an important coda to impart about how successful women are routinely undervalued and devalued, which is no laughing matter. The women’s collective looks out to the audience, and the play’s final words, say it all.