About an hour before curtain at the Geffen Playhouse last Friday night, Vice President Kamala Harris was purported to be dining around the corner in Westwood, escorted by a police motorcade flashing red and blue to a restaurant on Glendon Ave. barricaded by large SUVs.
Coincidence? Though the vice president was not immediately visible at the Geffen Playhouse that night, she might have thoroughly enjoyed “POTUS,” a farcical play subtitled “Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive.” Perhaps she would have related.
Written by Selina Fillinger in 2016, the increasingly madcap “POTUS” features seven women in the White House during an international arms negotiation, trying to manage the president and the power he represents—and doing their best to manage themselves as well.
The “eternal question” of why any of them, or indeed any woman, is not president lingers as a subtext throughout.
Each actor pours herself into her character with glee and gusto. Harriet (Shannon Cochran), the super-capable White House chief of staff suffering from hot flashes, tries to control how Press Secretary Jean (Celeste Den) spins the president’s sensitive-area medical issue in a way that doesn’t reveal he may have engaged in rough sex—and not with his wife Margaret (Alexandra Billings).
Meanwhile, obviously lactating journalist Chris (Ito Aghayere) tries to scoop a White House story before a male colleague who doesn’t have three kids at home with only a babysitter to help.
And mousy secretary Stephanie (Lauren Blumenfeld)—who speaks multiple languages but must practice taking up more space like a man—tries to keep 18-year-old Dusty (Jane Levy) out of the president’s office to tell him she’s pregnant with his love child.
As if this weren’t enough women, enter Bernadette (Deirdre Lovejoy), POTUS’s drug-dealing sister presidentially pardoned from her prison sentence who is also a former girlfriend of Jean’s. That Bernadette bears an uncanny resemblance to her brother comes in handy later.
Fast-paced funny dialogue, an absurd plot and farcical physical comedy—including the requisite slamming doors, inconvenient dead body, racing up and down aisles and accidental drug-induced inanity—rapidly ramp up hilarity to over-the-top levels.
But the farce in “POTUS” also reveals the ridiculousness of these women’s situations. As events force them to work together to save the arms talks, they collectively realize they have not only been fitting themselves into this particular man’s world but have been enabling his boorish behavior.
As directed by Jennifer Chambers, the seven well-cast actresses don’t miss a word or beat—both necessary in keeping the farcical bubble bouncing. Though all seven commendably embrace the physical absurdity of their roles and are fun to watch, Billings as the president’s wife delivers her punch lines with especially perfect timing, pausing and smirking with droll presence.
Set design by Brett J. Banakis effectively evokes the hallowed halls of the White House with painted presidential portraits on blue wallpaper with wood doors. Video screens arrayed on both sides of the stage occasionally show breaking CNN coverage, adding a fun tech element that perhaps could have been used more.
Lighting (Elizabeth Harper) is a bit stark at times, but music design by Lindsay Jones hits the mark with Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch” as the play’s anthem (“I’m a bitch, I’m a lover / I’m a child, I’m a mother…”). Subtlety was clearly not the goal in staging this play.
Breast pumps hang on Chris a tad too long, but costumes by Samantha C. Jones otherwise fit the characters well and allow for movement. A jeans-clad Bernadette evokes Bonnie Raitt, Harriet channels Hillary in a powder-blue pantsuit, FLOTUS dons pink crocs to make her to appear “earthy” to the public and Jean’s black turtleneck makes her the butt of Steve Jobs jokes.
The only less satisfying aspect of the play is that while the women manage to save the day, they are only barely able to save themselves. One of them absolutely crumbles at the prospect of losing her job over a presidential whim, even after all she does. The tableau of the seven at the end makes it seem like it takes that many competent, creative women to equal one loutish man in power.
But while it’s rolling, “POTUS” offers a delightful escapade of what could (or should) be going down at the White House, if not now then potentially soon after the November election, especially if you already feel like Stephanie the secretary (hysterically embodied by Blumenfeld)—high on fake antacids, running around in an inner tube and wondering where the floor went.
“POTUS” continues at the Geffen Playhouse’s Gil Cates Theater, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles, through Feb. 25, with shows Wednesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets range from $45 to $139 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (310) 208-2028 or visiting GeffenPlayhouse.org. Run time is 1 hour and 50 minutes including intermission.