"Cunt," when devoid of vitriol, is a funny word, and it's even funnier when Julie White is screaming it. To be fair, any word is funny when Julie White is screaming it, and there would be far fewer funny words in Selina Fillinger's POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive at the Shubert Theatre were Julie White and a great cast not screaming them.
But "cunt" is where it begins, and in adjective form. It appears the President of the United States, whom we never see, has told a roomful of diplomats that his wife is having a "cunty morning." To make matters worse, he can't sit down, owing to an anal abscess he hasn't had a chance to have drained. So that inadvertently sets off an international incident, and it's up to, well, the septet of ladies closest to him to save the day.
Those seven women are White, who plays Harriet, the chief of staff who's devoted her whole career to cleaning up his messes; Vanessa Williams as Margaret, the rifle-toting first lady; Suzy Nakamura as Jean, the harried press secretary; Rachel Dratch as the milquetoast White House receptionist Stephanie; Lilli Cooper as Chris, a new mom and White House reporter looking for a scoop as she pumps; Julianne Hough as Dusty, the President's pregnant mistress; and Lea DeLaria in Big Boo mode as Bernadette, the President's lesbian sister awaiting a pardon after doing time for being a drug mule.
Fillinger's heart is in the right place, and we can't fault her ambition. She's taking one of the more traditionally chauvinistic forms of theater, the farce, deconstructing it, and rebuilding it to center female characters as more than just sex kittens, though they are nonetheless still subject to the whims of the one man in their collective orbit. But Fillinger, 28, and making the grand-scale Broadway debut of everyone's dreams after only one other New York production, has crafted a script that aims high but too often relies on easy laughs. All the promise completely falls off the rails following a needless intermission that just pads the running time (this play should not be pushing two hours), and the show pretty much ends when the characters run into a glass ceiling the playwright can't figure out how to shatter.
The eighth woman — the woman almost singlehandedly responsible for keeping this play alive — is Susan Stroman, the estimable director who spins a baffling, amateur script into gold. Stro, she of The Producers and Crazy for You, stages POTUS at a fever pitch, and it works like a charm while highlighting the very specific gifts of her insanely hilarious cast.
The laughs they earn are less from the material and more from their shtick: White and her exasperated glances; Dratch, in a Debbie Downer wig, clomping around the stage in a hot pink innertube, draped in the American flag, after her character inadvertently drops acid (her performance is thrillingly alive in every single moment; if you ever get bored, just look over to her); the mere sight of Williams wearing spike heeled Crocs; and DeLaria pulling weapon after weapon out of her Mary Poppins carpet bag of firearms.
Because Stroman has tailored her production to the strengths of her actors, even those with the less interesting characters shine as brightly as the scene-stealers. Cooper (who had a baby in real life only seven months ago and could actually be pumping onstage for all we know) and Nakamura bring the right amount of gravity to the "straight" roles, before it all goes to hell, of course.
I don't think Hough, known primarily as a dancer and singer, has ever had the opportunity to show off her serious comedic chops the way she does here. She delivers a sly and confident performance that becomes the real revelation of the evening, and of all these seasoned vets, she's the one we're still talking about.
The design is just as confident, but iffier in actual usage. Beowulf Boritt has constructed an ingenious set, a multi-room, forced perspective White House on a Lazy Susan, but comedy, particularly farce, is all in the timing, and the turntable's speed throws off some of it. When the going gets tough, sound designer Jessica Paz pumps up the volume and lighting designer Sonoyo Nishikawa throws pink gels across the auditorium. On the other hand, Linda Cho's costumes are really snazzy and go a long way in helping the actors further develop their characters.
Were it not for Stroman and her cast, POTUS would not work nearly as well as it does — honestly, I don't think it would work at all. Never have I seen an ensemble do so much with so little, and they really come through to save the day.