Review: Jane Levy Stands Out in Uneven POTUS at the Geffen Playhouse

Selina Fillinger’s farce comes to the West Coast in a new production.

21 potus celeste den ito aghayere shannon cochran jane levy and deirdre lovejoy
Celeste Den, Ito Aghayere, Shannon Cochran, Jane Levy, and Deirdre Lovejoy in the Geffen Playhouse production of POTUS
(© Jeff Lorch)

POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive contains all the elements of farce: slamming doors, overheard conversations, accidents, and Chekhovian guns — both literal and figurative. While some moments of this 2022 comedy, now at the Geffen Playhouse, are inspired, they quite often fizzle as the mania bounces around the theater, landing without impact.

The comedy by Selina Fillinger mocks the chaos of a White House where its leader is a misogynistic, cruel, promiscuous buffoon who only thrives because of the women in the background who hold him up. Though we never meet the title character, the staff and assorted visitors are as volatile as the President. The Chief of Staff (Shannon Cochran) has hitched her talents to this Neanderthal and sees her future career spinning down the drain. The Press Secretary (Celeste Den) finds excusing her boss’s unconscionable behavior to the vicious press painful. The President’s secretary (Lauren Blumenfeld) has no confidence, despite practicing empowerment by listening to a “Bitch Boss” music playlist.

Meanwhile, the First Lady (Alexandra Billings) abhors her husband, and though strong and confident, feels she can only convey being an earthly, woman-of-the-people by wearing Crocs with her cocktail dress. A desperate journalist (Ito Aghayere) scoops a juicy story until she accidentally becomes the story. A flighty young woman (Jane Levy) brings joyous news the White House, although it’s not a joy to any of the other characters. And another uninvited guest (Deirdre Lovejoy) supplies the TNT that blows everything up.

Much of the dialogue is literate and witty, and Fillinger has a good sense of building suspense. Yet that tension peters out when there’s no punchline to the hijinks — even the first word of the play, a four-letter word repeated over and over, has lost its sting, particularly when it’s spelled out in every episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Filling the roles with women is a great reverse of the usual male-heavy West Wing personnel and Fillinger allows the ladies to be as flawed as their male counterparts. Regardless of gender, none of the characters get off easy.

Director Jennifer Chambers allows too much spontaneity in the heightened scenes, so the mousetrap of required physical comedy doesn’t land. This is most evident in a second act “ballet” of characters running through the audience that should have been choreographed to the second, but instead feels slapshot. At least the cast is uniformly strong, despite them all communicating that they’re in a farce in bold letters. The stand-out is Jane Levy, as the sexually confident, quick-thinking Dusty. Dizzy, but crazy like a fox, her Dusty becomes the moral center in an insane world. Aghayere, using the physical humor of two breast pumps, is hilarious as the mom-on-the-job who gets in over her head. Billings exudes control as the demanding First Lady, enunciating every word like they are bullets exploding out of a musket.

The set, by Brett J. Banakis, utilizes multiple rotating plates so the walls can form different rooms – such as hallways, offices, and the ladies’ restroom,  easily and quickly. The design is appropriately regal.  Samantha C. Jones’s costumes feature classy suits, appropriate for the setting.

As the United States skids down into what plans to be a farcically unfunny election cycle this year, an explosive comedy about the White House could be the tonic we need. POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive, as staged at the Geffen, doesn’t have the weight to satisfy.