What you have to remember about POTUS, Or Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive is that it labels itself as farce, the sort of play with doors slamming, people hiding in closets and sudden surprise entrances. Unfortunately, five-time Tony Award winner Susan Stroman has specialized in choreography and musical theater which is an entirely different set of skills. Don’t blame the seven famous actresses who inhabit the fictional White House of this new work by playwright Selina Fillinger in her first Broadway outing: in Stroman’s frenetic direction the play isn’t very funny even though it tries hard to amuse. The line that gets the biggest reaction is the statement that “affordable, safe reproductive health care is a basic human right,” one of the few statements not meant to be taken as a joke.
Suggested by the scandals and misadventures of several recent presidents, POTUS depicts a White House out of control but run by an incompetent president’s enablers as he goes from one mess to another. The play may have the best and most famous female cast on Broadway (in alphabetical order: Lilli Cooper, Lea DeLaria, Rachel Dratch, Julianne Hough, Suzy Nakamura, Julie White and Vanessa Williams) but they seem to have cast to type and are playing roles in which we have seen them before.
Instead of a series of doors and closets, Beowulf Boritt’s’ remarkable set on a revolving turntable takes us to a series of realistic and historic-looking rooms at The White House each time someone exits or enters an office. However, the set which never stops turning as it works its way through 13 scenes and set changes.
When the play begins, Harriet, the president’s harried Chief of Staff (White) is trying to explain to his perennial out-of-the-loop Press Secretary (Nakamura) about the president’s latest gaffe, an unprintable and insultingly offhand remark about The First Lady which is certain to need spin if it is possible. At the same time, The First Lady (Williams) is trying to get past Stephanie, the president’s mousy secretary (Dratch) in order to see her husband, while Chris (Cooper), a Time Magazine reporter, divorced mother of two, who is afraid of being replaced by a younger male reporter, is attempting to pump breast milk while she is waiting to interview the First Lady.
In the midst of all this, in walks Dusty (Hough), the president’s last fling who turns out to be 18 weeks pregnant. If this isn’t complication enough just before a nuclear non-proliferation meeting with world leaders who know about the president’s inappropriate remark that morning, in walks the president’s butch, drug-dealing sister Bernadette (DeLaria) who is out from prison attempting to get a pardon from her brother to everyone’s chagrin. Although we never meet the president, we come to know that he becomes incapacitated, leading all of the women to have to work overtime to keep it a secret. But he has a dinner that evening honoring the Female Models of Leadership Council and will he be in any shape to give his speech?
Farce makes use of physical comedy and props and POTUS is no exception. However, the use of a blue slushy and a statue of suffragette Alice Paul as projectiles is overused, and the gimmick of the hallucinogenic bottle of Tums which turns out to be something much stronger quickly palls. All of the actresses have been directed – or chosen to be – one-note in their characters which is quite reductive even though these women are smart enough to be able to keep saving the president from himself. White, a Tony Award-winning actress, is quite hysterical throughout as the Chief of Staff always yelling at the top of her voice; Williams plays exasperated as The First Lady, much the way she did in her recent appearance as boss lady Cora Hooper Hopper in Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle.
Dratch’s presidential secretary could be one of the characters she has played on Saturday Night Live. DeLaria’s Bernadette is typical of her style of standup comedy. Hough who played Sandy in Grease Live! and Sherri Christian in Rock of Ages is the cheerleader type who turns out to be more competent than she first appears. Cooper isn’t given much to do as the reporter worried about keeping her job as well as finishing her breast pumping. Nakamura who played Cathy on “The West Wing” grows tiresome as she needs everything to be spelled out for her as she is always the last to know.
While the individual sets are stunning, there are a few too many of them as they continually revolve. Linda Cho’s costumes are almost all pants suits, but not what are considered power outfits. While Jessica Paz’s sound design is fine when the actresses speak one at a time, but when several speak at once, there is no understanding them. The bright lighting by Sonoyo Nishikawa is totally appropriate for farce or comedy set in a series of offices.
In POTUS, Selina Fillinger’s first Broadway comedy, all is revealed by its unwieldy subtitle (“Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive”) which leaves little room for development. or surprise. The repeated statement “that’s the eternal question” in answer to why none of these women are President may be the real message behind this play. As staged by famed choreographer and director Susan Stroman, POTUS is frenzied rather than funny, a problem in farce. The seven famous actresses are undone by their one-note characters which give them little to play off of or expand on. A pity considering how few Broadway comedies there are these days and the quantity of talent on stage at the Shubert Theatre.
POTUS, Or Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive (April 14 – August 14, 2022)
Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.potusbway.com
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes including one intermission