Curtain up on a White House office as Chief of Staff Harriet (Julie White, whip sharp and as hilarious as ever) incredulously repeats the President’s lame-brained, misogynistic apology to press. “Please excuse my wife’s absence, she’s having a cunty morning.” (Trump may never have publicly used the word, but it’s highly characteristic of his vocabulary. The president here is not Trump, but Trumpish.)
Julie White (Harriet) and Suzy Nakamura (Jean)
“We can contain that. We all have cunty mornings sometimes. My son has them every week. You’re clearly having one today,” responds Press Secretary Jean (Suzy Nakamura), somewhat less apoplectic than the woman she calls “a walking kegel.” These are the enablers who clean up messes, repair situations, and quietly maintain what remains of reputation left to the leader of the free world.
Today, Harriet and Jean are vainly trying “to keep our female base shenanigans from shrinking to the size of a nut sack,” while juggling scheduled public engagements: a nuclear nonproliferation conference, a photo op with disabled veterans, a gubernatorial candidate endorsement, and a gala celebrating women’s leadership. POTUS also has a wound which, though not visible in clothes, is as painful as its source is scandalous, making it impossible to sit down. Foreign diplomats take offense at his apparent lack of respect.
Vanessa Williams (Margaret, the First Lady) and Rachel Dratch (Stephanie)
Third in line guarding the commander in chief, his diminutive secretary, Stephanie (the hysterically funny Rachel Dratch), is brainy and multilingual, but so timid and unpolished she’s all but dispensed with by the others. The first lady refers to her as “a menopausal toddler.” Mentoring Stephanie’s wish for self empowerment, Harriet has given her recordings, mantras and physical exercises employed here to terrifically droll effect.
First Lady Margaret (Vanessa Williams, heavy handed) is vainly trying to see her husband. The polar opposite of Melania, she’s extremely accomplished and savvy. Like our former president’s wife, branding is important: she wears ugly Crocs to appear “earthy.” Like Melania, Margaret’s aware and tolerant of her husband’s dalliances.
One of these, Dusty (an excellent Julianne Hough showcasing new talents) is a promiscuous, naïve, Iowa bimbo who turns out to have hidden resources. Wandering around the executive floor in a mini dress and boots, she asks everyone to be “pointed towards” the president. (Dusty was invited by Harriet, the only one aware of her existence.) In early pregnancy, the young woman raises the issue of women’s healthcare. Our audience spontaneously cheers.
Julianne Hough (Dusty), Lea Delaria (Bernadette) and Suzy Nakamura (Jean)
Rounding out the justifiably querulous women are: Chris (a credible Lilli Cooper), a freshly divorced journalist interviewing Margaret for Time Magazine who’s juggling breast pumps, her children’s nanny, her ex, and an untrusting editor in hopes of a better story; and, POTUS’ butch, drug-dealing sister Bernadette (the wonderful Lea Delaria for whom the role seems bespoke), who arrives in an ankle tracker soliciting a pardon while selling to White House FBI agents.
Intermittently one or another of the group, having shown intelligence and cleverness, is recognized as superior by another. Example: “Harriet works for him.” “No, Harriet works him.” “Why isn’t she president?” Chris overhears what’s going on and records it on her phone. A frantic chase ensues. Drugs are mistaken for Tums, two women pull out guns, Stephanie can’t find the floor, Dusty “blows” the wrong men in an effort to buy time, a whopper of an accident occurs ingeniously ending Act I. Jean comes up with a viable, if dangerous, cover-up plan and…of, course, nothing goes as it should.
Julie White (Harriet)
Playwright Selina Fillinger has her finger on the pulse of women’s lot these days – to be forced to play by men’s rules while trying not to prostitute exceptionalism. Her gimlet-eyed view of politics carries the message with brio and intelligence. Occasional fast-paced skewering of international relations is on target.
Beowulf Boritt’s revolving White House office set works wonderfully to showcase anxious proximity and pandemonium. Its stylization is just right for the piece.
Costumes by Linda Cho reflect each character to a T. Bernadette and Dusty are particularly well defined.
Arranger/Music Director Sonny Paladino has scored the play with a roster of hard-edged rock music one could easily lift for future women’s rights rallies or primal scream exercises. (No, it’s not too loud.)
Susan Stroman must’ve had a field day with POTUS. Never before has she had an opportunity to pace and illuminate a non-musical of this nature. The director manages to walk a line between wicked travesty and frustrating reality without losing a beat. Small stage business and sight gags are wonderful, yet never override characters and plot.
Casting by Taylor Williams CSA is masterful.
Go. Laugh. Think.
Photos by Paul Kolnik
Opening: Vanessa Williams, Lilli Cooper, Rachel Dratch, Julie White, Julianne Hough, Suzy Nakamura
POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying To Keep Him Alive
By Selena Fillinger
Directed by Susan Stroman
Sam S. Shubert Theatre
225 West 44th Street https://potusbway.com/