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Theatre in Review: POTUS (Shubert Theatre)

Lilli Cooper, Rachel Dratch, Vanessa Williams. Photo: Paul Kolnik

POTUS wastes no time in jump-starting its down-and-dirty business: Its first line of dialogue is a four-letter slur beginning with C. If that shocks you, hang on; you'll hear it 28 more times before the final curtain. The word, we are told, has been used, in public, by the President of the United States in relation to his wife. Awkwardly, the First Lady was in the room at the time, behind a scrum of reporters. Already the story is ballooning out of control, mortally offending (among others) the government of Bahrain. Adding to the day's problems, the president cannot sit because of the large abscess on his rear; how he got it is the subject of much ribald explanation, but it has unexpected political repercussions. For example, at a conference on nuclear nonproliferation, he leaves everyone standing -- if he can't sit, neither can they -- and an international crisis is brewing. In other words, it's just another day at the White House.

Such incidents help to explain the play's full title, which is POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive. In Selena Fillinger's frantic, foul-mouthed farce, the commander-in-chief combines the worst traits of several recent residents of 1600 Pennsylvania, including a knack for explosive one-liners and an inability to keep his pants zipped. As he lurches from crisis to crisis; his female staffers battle to keep him on this side of disaster. That most of them are more qualified than he to run the country is obvious, so why hasn't it happened? As more than one notes, "That's the eternal question, isn't it?"

The ladies in question include chief of staff Harriet (Julie White), who, trying to keep the lid on burgeoning scandal, flips in nanoseconds from icy composure to full-out apoplexy. Harriet's leading frenemy is press secretary Jean (Suzy Nakamura), whose job description apparently includes engaging in hairsplitting arguments about the meaning of "global powers," roasting reporters, and stopping conversations by announcing, "Get off my dick." (When that last remark turns up as an anonymously sourced comment in a news report, her outrage is something to behold.) The main source of Jean's ire is reporter Chris (Lilli Cooper); divorced and a new mother, she sneaks around with a breast milk pump attached to her chest, fielding calls from her incompetent babysitter and sniffing out scoops to save her job from being snatched by "that giggly boy from Buzzfeed" (Jean's description).

Chris is on hand ostensibly to interview Margaret, the First Lady (Vanessa Williams). An avid hunter, she bags journalists, too, offering tidbits like, "The truth is, even before I was First Lady, I always wore multiple hats. Granted, I only had three non-profits back then, but after graduating from Stanford and then Harvard, I managed to keep busy enough with my law firm, my husband's campaigns, my campaigns, my talk show, my book, my other book, my cookbook, my gallery, and Taekwondo." Margaret is mortified to learn that her husband is planning on pardoning his sister Bernadette (Lea DeLaria), a butch lesbian and full-time hellion with an epic rap sheet and warrants in three countries. (Just to stir the pot, she is also Jean's ex-lover.) Before anyone can put the kibosh on this plan, Bernadette enters, with bags of drugs taped to her legs, ready to do business with her regular customers, who include several members of the Cabinet. Adding to everyone's agita is the surprise appearance of Dusty (Julianne Hough), a well-heeled Iowa farm girl with an inconvenient pregnancy.

For most of the first act, the women of POTUS are caught up in a mass of clashing agendas but, by the time they have a dead body to dispose of, they are working as a unit. And, under the direction of Susan Stroman -- the musical theatre specialist here nicely exercising her legit play chops -- every member of the seven-person cast contributes to the high-velocity hilarity. There's nothing quite like White, in voice with all the delicacy of a blast furnace, announcing, "Literally, I've bullied 200 feminists into attending tonight's gala and written 37 drafts of POTUS' speech so that our female base doesn't literally shrink smaller than a nut sack in the snow!" (The group is called the Female Models of Leadership Council and White is blissfully unaware that FML is an Internet epithet.) Williams, swanning around in a chic red pantsuit and high-heeled Crocs -- Margaret's attempt at rebranding herself as "earthy" -- delivers her lines with the lethality of guided missiles. Taking aim at Stephanie (Rachel Dratch), the president's panic-stricken secretary, she growls, "I'm gonna punt that man's abscessed ass across the South Lawn and if you don't get out of my way, I will shred you like the sad cardigan you are." When not taking such abuse, Dratch harvests laugh after laugh, whether blissing out to a mixtape titled "Bitch Beats" or, having accidentally ingested some of Bernadette's drug supply, wandering around in a haze, wrapped in an American flag and wondering, vaguely, "Are my feet on the ground?"

De Laria's Bernadette is a most delightful member of the criminal element, whether delivering threats of violence, dropping bombshells about the First Family, or plotting a group escape to Mongolia. Nakamura's deadpan reactions to the frenzy swirling around her are priceless, as are Cooper's agitated attempts at controlling her chaotic work and personal lives. Hough, the least experienced member of the company, stops the show with Dusty's cheer-captain conflict-resolution routine (to say nothing of her riotous misadventures involving oral sex.) In what may be the play's most treasurable line, she reminisces about the time she sent the president "my favorite Rilke poem and a picture of my nipples."

Fillinger, a new name, has a solid grasp of farce construction, providing motivation for each of the play's events, however unlikely. So much of the first act unfolds in scenes lasting only a minute or two that one wonders if POTUS began as a screenplay; fortunately, scenic designer Beowulf Boritt has come up with a turntable that whisks us to multiple locations in seconds. Lighting designer Sonoyo Nishikawa gives the proceeds a hard, bright patina; she also provides silhouette effects for a climactic concert sequence and contributes to the first act finale, in which a bust of the suffragist Alice Paul is thrown, with cataclysmic consequences. Linda Cho's costumes prove her to be a keen student of CNN, MSNBC, and C-SPAN; Cookie Jordan's wig and hair designs include a coif for White's character that is one of the play's sturdiest running jokes. Jessica Paz provides a battery of sound effects that include news broadcasts and cheering crowds in addition to Dratch and Hough's memorable rendition of Joan Jett's "I Hate Myself for Loving You."

POTUS rests on the pleasant fiction that if women ruled the world, we'd all be much better off. It's a sentiment that might seconded by the likes of Ginni Thomas, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Marine Le Pen, and then where would we be? But savage, take-no-prisoners fun like this doesn't come along every day, and Fillinger is definitely a playwright to reckon with. And with these seven ladies going full-tilt, what's not to love? POTUS magically transforms our political mess into an occasion for joy. This is one platform of candidates I can heartily endorse. --David Barbour

(5 May 2022)

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