There are an infinite number of ways a comedy can get its audience to laugh. Selina Fillinger’s Broadway-debut play, “POTUS,” successfully tries its hand at most. Raunchy language? Well, that starts with the play’s opening word. Wordplay? A “Female Models of Leadership” feminist group is referred to as FML. Slapstick? A woman maims the president with a marble bust of Alice Paul. The new comedy, whose full title is “POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive,” has got the giggles covered. The harder task often assigned to political comedies, however, is to present the hard truths of the day in a way that’s fresh. “POTUS” proves that difficulty to be true.
During an early exchange between two members of the cast, a reporter named Chris (Lilli Cooper) warns the president’s press secretary, Jean (Suzy Nakamura), that she is here to get a scoop:
Honey, I don’t need to stir shit up: We got a president throwing his feces at the wall.
There isn’t a story in Washington smutty enough to get you back in the game, Chris.
That a challenge?
That’s a warning.
Really, it’s foreshadowing. Because over the course of 100+ minutes, smut abounds. “POTUS” chronicles seven women in closest proximity to the president over the course of a particularly difficult day. The actual POTUS of the play, who’s never seen onstage, has lit a consecutive line of political fires, from publicly degrading his wife and insulting the prime minister of Bahrain to impregnating his mistress and nearly pardoning his international drug stallion (not mule!) of a sister. The seven figures simultaneously taking down and holding up the president’s life clash at first, but must ultimately join forces when that aforementioned suffragist bust renders the commander in chief unconscious. The plot unfolds into “how to hide the body” high jinks à la “Rough Night,” “Head Above Water” and other film comedies, with the casual threat of an international crisis wading in the background.
It would be unlikely for this chorale of cast members, a melange of well-known talent from theater, movies and television, to be put on a stage and not deliver. Especially when most of them here are playing dramatized versions of their public personas. Vanessa Williams — stunning, confident, all-around rich-bitch energy — is FLOTUS, an idyllic choice after a career of playing accomplished women. Lea DeLaria is Bernadette, the president’s brash felon of a baby sister. Julianne Hough — who sashayed across America’s screens in “Dancing with the Stars” before speaking on them — is the spunky, wide-eyed mistress Dusty, former captain of her school dance team. Rachel Dratch earns the belly-est of laughs as Stephanie, presidential secretary and neurotically awkward overperfectionist. But it is Julie White who holds the reins of the production as Harriet, who we are told is the president’s chief of staff — but essentially, she is him: She writes his speeches, arranges his affairs and is completely plugged in to his butt issues (no pun intended).
The roles these characters fall into are predictable; it’s a structural weakness (but satirical strength) of Fillinger’s script. As a woman alive in the world, I know we are the ones running this shit, in and out of the Oval Office. “POTUS” stages the absurdity of gender bias, but never offers a new way to tackle it. Lines that reference Black maternal health, reproductive rights or the need for a female president earn applause but do little more for the brain than a well-constructed tweet. Layered under this is a slightly more interesting conversation the play is having about the morality (or lack thereof) of national leaders but only enough for say, a tweet thread. The achievement of “POTUS” lies not in what the women tell us, but in the fact that they are all there, pumping swelled breasts, hysterically spewing curse words and, as Stephanie often practices in her distressed moments, taking up space. When a cast is having this much fun, it’s impossible not to be in on it. And director Susan Stroman, a veteran of musical comedies, guides the company in making the most of each joke.
All of this romp takes place on Beowulf Boritt’s practical and playful turntable of a set. Aside from the press secretary’s domain, the spaces are not particularly discernable, but paintings of history’s great, brave, white men hang in most — a subtle reminder that although no male actors are present, men haunt the room. Since the real spectacle here is the cast, other design elements like costumes (Linda Cho), lighting (Sonoyo Nishikawa), sound (Jessica Paz) and hair/wigs (Cookie Jordan) do little to stand out. It’s enough to support the women without detracting from their gifts — which is perhaps the best lesson any of us can take from the show.
“POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive” opened at the Shubert Theatre on April 27, 2022.
Review Photo: Paul Kolnik
Creative: 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.
Producers: Produced by Seaview, 51 Entertainment, Glass Half Full Productions, Level Forward, Salman Al-Rashid, Sony Music Masterworks, Mark Gordon Pictures, Imagine Equal Entertainment, Jonathan Demar, Luke Katler, Thomas Laub and David J. Lynch.
Cast: Lilli Cooper, Lea DeLaria, Rachel Dratch, Julianne Hough, Suzy Nakamura, Julie White and Vanessa Williams.