When POTUS was announced in March, it seemed to materialize out of thin air at the end of an already crowded spring season. But with a cast including Rachel Dratch, Julie White, and Vanessa Williams, and a director like Susan Stroman at the helm, there was a fair amount of anticipation to see what Selina Fillinger’s play would bring. I’m happy to say the answer is laughs. Fillinger’s work is packed with laugh-out-loud, foul-mouthed humor and sight gags. I can’t recall a play as hilarious in the last several years.
POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive concerns a group of women who either work for or are related to a president who, at the top of the play, has used a vulgar adjective to describe his wife’s (Vanessa Williams) attitude. As his Chief of Staff (Julie White) and Press Secretary (Suzy Nakamura) try to contain the damage, his sister (Lea DeLaria) shows up, fresh from prison, seeking a pardon, and his mistress (Julianne Hough) arrives pregnant and spewing blue slushie. His meek secretary (Rachel Dratch) is struggling to be assertive in the shadow of so many intense personalities and a reporter (Lili Cooper) is roaming the halls looking for a scoop. Hijinks ensue.
Fillinger’s play cross-cuts back and forth through the various storylines in cinematic fashion. Stroman and set designer Beowulf Boritt solve this logistical problem with a massive turntable that rotates to reveal the many rooms across the West Wing. Stroman brings her musical theatre background to the play (her first on Broadway) with a deft sense of pacing. The scenes ping pong back and forth, but Stroman lets the rotation of the set give us a break. The rotation time lets the jokes land and the brain adjust, but it moves quickly enough that there’s no actual lag. Linda Cho’s costuming amplifies the absurdity (where can I get one of those FML t-shirts?) while staying rooted in believability and naturalism. As they say, sometimes truth is even stranger than fiction.
The casting, by Taylor Williams, is absolute perfection. Vanessa Williams is all high glamor and poise, even when her character dons a pair of Crocs to make her appear more “earthy.” Her lofty composure then crumbles to great effect at the end of the first act. Lea DeLaria delivers a fast-talking con-woman performance, but infuses the acid with a lot of fun. She has a tossed off joke in her first scene that made me howl. Lili Cooper and Suzy Nakamura both play frazzled women of the press and have great chemistry when they are sparring with each other. Rachel Dratch’s character goes from buttoned-up to off-the-deep-end and back again. She has the wackiest things to play and calibrates a performance that goes big and takes us there with her. Julianne Hough gets the short shrift in Fillinger’s play. Her character is relegated to vomiting and giving blowjobs for a lot of the run time and Hough plays her with a knowing naiveté that ends up doing a lot to humanize the character who is least dimensional on the page.
The play rests on Julie White as Harriet, the Chief of Staff, who is responsible for solving all of the problems both inside the West Wing and on the global stage. It’s no surprise that White, who is always fantastic, succeeds here. She is a born comedian with her light Texas accent and a face that can express sixteen things at once. The great thing about her, though, is that she’s never content to let her natural abilities do all the work. White is a brilliant, thinking actress. You see the cogs moving, you see her stacking up the pieces, or knocking them down if they’re in her way. Even in a play like POTUS, a relatively light divertissement, White gives a performance of remarkable depth. She delivers Fillinger’s jokes like she’s just thought of them. They’re not perfectly crafted barbs, they are stumbled utterances, knee-jerk reactions to what she’s witnessing. In the last section of the play, when reality intrudes on the farce, White is filled with the regrets of a life she may have wasted. It takes a singular performer who can spend ninety minutes doing broad physical comedy and then make us believe that that same person now feels a hollowness in her core. Julie White is such an actor.
POTUS is not set out to change lives, and it doesn’t need to be. It lives in a universe somewhere between Veep and Bridesmaids and that’ll get no complaints from me. It is a raucous and wildly entertaining comedy, the likes of which haven’t been seen on Broadway in years. In such an overstuffed season, it stands apart as a solid, belly-shaking good time.