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An anxious energy permeated the atmosphere in the months and years following the election of former President Donald Trump. An absurd campaign had resulted in a win, and then an even more ludicrous administration. Some Americans have never been able to bank on the improbability of the impossible, but for others — usually white, cis, liberal — the election of Trump upended reality and forced recalibration. If a crass, narcissistic entrepreneur could be elected to the highest office in the land, what else could happen?
It turns out a lot. The Trump years brought with them catastrophic laws and judicial appointments. Each day began with a fresh wave of headlines featuring a cast of characters so preposterous, it seemed surreal. Selina Fillinger’s POTUS: Or Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive would have been a perfect production for those years. The play, now at Shubert Theatre, is an intentional farce, a dramatic comedy that peddles in crude jokes and slapstick to illuminate American society’s relationship to women.
POTUS deals with the patriarchy and how it functions even when its primary beneficiaries aren’t present. But the manner in which the play approaches its subject doesn’t always serve the broader point. Fillinger wants to toy with the ridiculous ideas underpinning the system, but harbors an understandable impulse to protect her characters, to make us laugh with them instead of at them. The play teases a level of desperation and hysteria it doesn’t, ultimately, see through. And the production teeters somewhat awkwardly between positions — skewering the patriarchy and uplifting the girlboss.
It’s the music that initially clues us into the tension. As the audience during my preview shuffled into their seats, a P!nk anthem blared from the speakers. I thought it confusing to preempt audience experience with such an earnest pop tune, but chalked it up to irony because the beginning of the play promises subversion.
The theater goes dark and the stage lights up to reveal Julie White and Suzy Nakamura as, respectively, Harriet, the White House chief of staff, and Jean, the press secretary, litigating the severity of the unnamed president’s latest antic. Their rhythmic and caustic dialogue immediately confirms the sharpness of Fillinger’s pen. “Cunt” is the first word uttered — a deliciously abrasive start.
It’s the word the president used to reference his wife during a meeting earlier in the day. Technically, he said “cunty,” and it was folded into an apology to reporters from major news outlets and three Chinese diplomats: “Please excuse my wife’s absence. She’s having a cunty morning.” To make matters worse, his wife, Margaret (Vanessa Williams), was present. She’d been there for 10 minutes; he just didn’t see her.
The situation sends the chief of staff and press secretary into a frantic state. They have spent their careers saving the president from his misogynistic fumbles, and this latest instance threatens to ruin a women’s leadership event (Female Models of Leadership Council, or its mordant abbreviation: FML) they organized for the evening.
Performances are key in POTUS and the cast, under the direction of Susan Stroman, exceeds expectations. They deliver their lines nimbly, which keeps the play agile and appropriately tense. White, with her screeching, nervous pacing, wide eyes and gesticulating arms, complements Nakamura’s intentionally stiff stance and staccato cadences. Their realization and brainstorming sessions hit the right mix of comical and stressful.
Their scene cuts and the stage, beautifully designed by Beowulf Boritt, rotates to another encounter — this one between Margaret and the president’s meek secretary Stephanie (a phenomenal Rachel Dratch). The two are verbally tussling, with Stephanie trying and failing to keep Margaret from entering the president’s office. He’s very busy, Stephanie insists. Margaret, dressed in a clean crimson suit and crocs (because she’s trying to come off “earthy”), doesn’t care. (I’d be remiss not to shout out Linda Cho’s costume design, which makes the first lady’s foray into crocs fashion one of the show’s strongest bits.)
Margaret wonders if the president is applying tea tree oil to his anal abscess, the one he developed after a night with one of his dalliances. Everyone suspects the mysterious mistress is Dusty (Julianne Hough), a peppy, doe-eyed woman who bursts into a White House bathroom halfway through the first act, announcing terrible news. As if the day couldn’t get any worse, there’s now an issue with the president’s sister Bernadette (Lea DeLaria), who, through a series of lucrative connections, gets out of prison for the day to ask her brother for a pardon. Hovering on the perimeter of this is chaos is Chris (Lilli Cooper), a journalist trying to sniff out a story she suspects goes deeper than the “cunty” faux pas already making headlines.
The play’s first act builds chaotically — characters roll in, the stage revolves and everyone is panicking as they try to manage multiple crises. The shocking moment right before intermission makes it easy to excuse some of the repetitive jokes, but it’s harder to exercise similar patience by the second half, in which the show’s contradictions become more apparent.
When the audience takes their seats again and the curtains rise, the shenanigans (my vagueness here is intended to avoid spoilers) ensue at an expected pace. Up until this point, the quippy, expletive-laced dialogue elicited laughs, but now the jokes grow redundant.
Trudging toward its end, POTUS takes an earnest turn. It remains cosmetically absurdist, but its bite is dulled. The women become more sympathetic, moving the comedy away from its original intent. Is POTUS still a farce or something else all together? The playwright Michael Frayn’s thoughts on the genre come to mind: “Farce is a brutally difficult form [….] In laughing at it you have lost your moral dignity, and you don’t like to admit it afterwards — you don’t like to concede the power of the people who have reduced you to such behavior.”
I suspect that applies to systems, too. The patriarchy harms everyone and encourages undignified decision-making, but some women understand that and take advantage of it. It would be silly to think otherwise. I wanted POTUS to lean into that gray area a little more. Of course women become farces in a patriarchal system — but not always so innocently.
Venue: Shubert Theatre, New York
Cast: Lilli Cooper, Lea DeLaria, Rachel Dratch, Julianne Hough, Suzy Nakamura, Julie White, Vanessa Williams
Director: Susan Stroman
Playwright: Selina Fillinger
Set designer: Beowulf Boritt
Costume designer: Linda Cho
Lighting designer: Sonoyo Nishikawa
Sound designer: Jessica Paz
Hair & wig designer: Cookie Jordan
Fight and Intimacy director: Rocio Mendez
Make up design: Kirk Cambridge-del Pesche
Casting: Taylor Williams
Presented by Seaview, 51 Entertainment, Glass Half Full, Level Forward, Salman Al-Rashid, Runyonland Productions, Sony Music Masterorks, One Community, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Jonathan Demar, Imagine Equal Entertainment, Lucas Katler, David J. Lynch, Leonid Makaron, Mark Gordin Pictures, Liz Slager, Ted Snowdon, Natalie Gorman/Tish Brennan Throop, The Shubert Organization, Mark Shacket
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