A few stipulations up top: I am in alignment with the progressive politics of Selena Fillinger’s POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive, which opened last Friday at Steppenwolf’s downstairs theater. I love political farce. And the acting talent assembled for this production–including ensemble members Celeste M. Cooper, Sandra Marquez, Caroline Neff and Karen Rodriguez, along with Karen Aldridge, Chloe Baldwin and Meighan Gerachis–is formidable.
However, after a chaotic but genuinely hilarious first act, the narrative wheels come flying off, leaving POTUS to sink up to its axels under the weight of utterly implausible scenarios that lack internal logic and a nearly unintelligible plot that ends with a bimbo massage artist captivating feminist leaders at a White House policy dinner by stripping on stage while a member of the president’s staff burns an American flag just outside the function room. These beats are neither dramatically earned nor comedically coherent. In fairness, such issues did not appear to bother the boisterous audience happily going along for the ride (including the discerning young lady who attended the performance with me), and the show will doubtless have many fans.
The much better first act plays like a funhouse-mirror version of The West Wing, where the walk-and-talks consist of stinging one-liners and whip-crack rejoinders. The promising setup (reminiscent of both Veep and my favorite Curb Your Enthusiasm episode): The president, a man we never meet, has created a political crisis by telling a room full of diplomats and reporters that the First Lady is “having a cunty morning.”
Chaos ensues as reaction to the comment seems likely to derail a critical arms-control summit, which means the women who keep this idiot propped up behind the scenes must spring into action and save the day. There’s the pissed-off First Lady herself (Aldridge, playing her as a Hillaryesque intellectual and nonprofit maven who’s now wearing Crocs around the White House in a bid to be seen as “earthy” when she sits for a puff-piece interview with Time Magazine). There’s the journalist doing said interview (Cooper, who attempts to fend off the younger male reporter trying to steal her scoops even as she pumps breast milk and takes phone calls from her child’s caregiver).
And then there are the White House staffers–the chief of staff (a no-nonsense Sandra Marquez with a gimlet eye, lacerating wit and big political ambitions), the press secretary (a believably beleaguered Karen Rodriguez) and the COS’s brilliant but awkwardly nervous protege (Caroline Neff, who’s unfortunately tasked with running around for most of the second act in a bra and Spanx, covered in blood and toting a neon-green inner tube as she surfs an inadvertent psychedelic freak-out)–along with the president’s sister on a day pass from prison (Gerachis) and a loopy young woman (Baldwin) with a tennis racket poking out of her gym bag and a mysterious and urgent need to see the president.
Whew. It’s a lot. Which can be a lot of fun. Until the fun becomes overwhelmed by nagging questions. Like why, if the First Lady is such a smart, progressive powerhouse who has started five major nonprofits, is she married to this imbecile, and why does she boast of being an avid big game hunter? Where are these people actually at in the White House at any given moment? (The physical logic of the space ultimately vanishes in the haphazard blocking, though most of the play’s issues lie with the writer and not director Audrey Francis.) Why is the president’s sister, Bernadette, an imprisoned felon hoping to con POTUS into pardoning her, walking around free with no minders in the West Wing? Why is the reporter, who gets roped into a crazy scheme involving transporting a body across the White House in a cardboard box–without being seen by anyone–willing to stick with a coverup after there’s no longer a logical reason for her to do so? Why does the body even have to be moved that far? And why would a chief of staff think that tying herself to a terrible president will somehow catapult her into a winning White House run in eight years?
Comedy, even far-out farce, has to be grounded in some kind of recognizable reality. This ain’t that. Which is mostly why POTUS played to mixed reviews during its three-month Broadway run last year.
But again, the first act is a hoot, and there are strong performances worth checking out–Gerachis, in particular, who has the look of Jane Byrne and the manner of Richard Belzer, if Byrne was a notorious drug smuggler who knew how to dispose of bodies and carried a blowtorch everywhere she went. (Even in the White House! To which she came directly from her prison cell! What?) Gerachis displays masterful comedic instincts. Every one of her lines is a perfectly timed winner. I would love to watch a play just about Bernadette and her attempt to build a life on the run with her press secretary ex-flame Rodriguez.
If only the writing displayed a little more logic and restraint, the resulting farcical chaos might have been enjoyable all the way to the end. After all, when the Marx Brothers fill the ship’s stateroom in A Night at the Opera, one of the things that makes the scene brilliant is that every single person who walks in has a plausible reason for being there. If, say, a highway construction crew and a fur trapper had forced their way into the room alongside the steward, the maids, the engineer, the manicurist, the engineer’s assistant, the lost passenger, the janitor and the four waiters, it would have been even crazier.
But it wouldn’t have been nearly as funny.
POTUS runs through December 17 at Steppenwolf Theatre.
For a full roundup of reviews of this show, visit Theatre in Chicago.
Photo by Michael Brosilow