In “POTUS,” seven female characters save the president of the United States from himself during a series of scandals and crises on a single day in the White House – at the same time that the starry all-female cast that portrays these women saves “POTUS” from itself.
Playwright Selina Fillinger’s Broadway debut is much less a political satire with a feminist message than an increasingly out-of-control farce marked by gross-out humor, an obsession with bodily fluids, and a steady stream of hardcore expletives that would make David Mamet blush (which might be the point of them.) “Ass play” is among the few phrases I feel comfortable repeating, although not as many times as the characters repeat it, because it figures prominently in the plot.
There are enough moments in “POTUS” that I could select to make the case that the play is both funny and pointed, but just as many (more, to be honest) to demonstrate how off-putting and puerile it is.
This is why the cast is crucial.
Julie White portrays Harriet, the president’s chief of staff, who really runs the country. The first crisis she must handle, in a huddle with Jean the press secretary (Suzy Nakamura) is that the president (never seen) has used a vulgar word for women to describe his wife. The First Lady, Margaret, portrayed by Vanessa Williams, may suggest to you Michelle Obama, since she is explicitly Black and Harvard educated, but she has been criticized for the stilettos she wore to a homeless shelter, so moments of Melania, except she’s sensitive to public opinion so she’s now wearing Crocs to show she’s down to earth (so, Hillary?) but she carries a gun with her and likes to hunt, enjoying seeing a beast suffer, “snuffing out his small, mediocre life.” (so….Sarah Palin?) Fillinger has told interviewers that she was inspired to write the play because of the women who enabled Trump (which explains the play’s subtitle “Or, Behind Every Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive.”) But the characters she’s created and especially the president conjured up are at best composites, at worst a muddle. (Can political satire be effective if it’s generic?) It takes an actress as stately and game as Williams to pull off this First Lady.
Similarly, it takes Rachel Dratch to pull off Stephanie, the president’s personal secretary, who knows five languages but is so mistreated that she lacks confidence and does silly affirmation exercises. She accidentally ingests hallucinogens, which causes her to spend most of the play smeared with blood (don’t ask), wearing an American flag and a flotation device, and prancing up and down the aisles of the Shubert.
The drugs were supplied by the president’s sister Bernadette, a convicted and imprisoned international drug mule (“I prefer drug stallion”) who shows up at the White House, with a leg monitor, having been promised a pardon by her brother. Bernadette is supposed to look so much like her brother that at one point the other women conspire to have her impersonate him. So who else could pull this character off than the inimitable Lea Delaria.
Lilli Cooper portrays White House reporter Chris, who’s newly divorced and fearful of being replaced at her job by a younger man, so stalks the White House looking for scandal, of which there is plenty to find – although she winds up being the cause of one of them, which involves the accidental use of a bust of suffragette Alice Paul as a weapon. She also has recently given birth, so she spends the entire play leaking milk and wearing a breast pump. I’m not sure if we were supposed to find this funny or pointed, but I only found it admirable that Cooper was able to maintain her dignity.
If there is a stand-out among these stand-outs, it is probably Julianne Hough as Dusty, whom we first see vomiting blue slushies in the White House bathroom, because she’s pregnant…with the president’s baby. If Dusty appears to be a stereotypical bimbo, no more capable of having a coherent thought than the flax she grows on a farm in Iowa, little by little we learn that she’s extraordinary in a whole host of ways, some of which (but far from all of which) are X-rated. (She’s where the ass play comes into play, and that’s all I’ll say.) Hough, who among her other accomplishments was a two-time champion of “Dancing with the Stars,” does triple duty in “POTUS” – at one point, rapping while she plays her body like a drum; at another, leading the rest of the ladies in two different song and dance numbers, which are in the play because….well, why not. Besides, Susan Stroman, four-time Tony winner for choreography (and once for direction), is the director, so why not give her something to do besides stage these characters standing around spouting vulgarities in the different elegant rooms of the White House that spin around on designer Beowulf Boritt’s turntable set.
The underlying point of these characters is supposed to be how capable they are. More than one of them is asked, or asks herself, “Why aren’t you President?” But rather than take charge, as Jean the press secretary says to Harriet the chief of staff: “You stand in for him every single day, you’ve done it for years. You clean up his messes, you make excuses, you do his job, and then you wake up and do it all over again.”
But the real message of this production is how a capable cast can let a playwright get away with almost anything.
Or, Behind Every Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive
Shubert Theater through August 14, 2022
Running time: One hour and 50 minutes including one intermission
Tickets: $39 – $250
Written by Selina Fillinger
Directed by Susan Stroman
Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt; Costume Design by Linda Cho; Lighting Design by Sonoyo Nishikawa; Sound Design by Jessica Paz; Hair and Wig Design by Cookie Jordan
Cast: Lilli Cooper, Lea DeLaria, Rachel Dratch, Julianne Hough, Suzy Nakamura, Julie White, Vanessa Williams