There’s a moment in the new Broadway play POTUS that made me cackle so loud, I surprised myself. It’s a blink-and-you-miss-it moment. It occurs as the revolving set for POTUS is turning to a new scene in a woman’s restroom. There’s a tampon dispenser, and as the lights are still down, you can see the price for tampons: $2.79. Oof. The pink tax weighs heavy on the women of the play, both literally and figuratively. If only the rest of POTUS was as subtle or as smart.
POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive is written by Selina Fillinger, who at 28 years old is making her Broadway debut with a play directed by five-time Tony winner Susan Stroman. No pressure. POTUS is a farce and workplace comedy about a group of women who work at the White House under a fictitious male president. And this president, who never appears, seems like an overgrown manchild who would rather start an international crisis than admit weakness.
The president is also going through multiple sex scandals, such as publicly calling his wife Margaret (Vanessa Williams at her most regal deadpan) a cunt and having an affair with the 20-something-year-old Dusty (an utterly committed-to-the-bit Julianne Hough). And his female chief-of-staff Harriet (a perpetually frazzled Julie White) and his female press secretary Jean (Suzy Nakamura, doing the best Jen Psaki impression) are charged with cleaning up the mess.
Meanwhile, the president’s convicted-criminal sister Bernadette (a swaggering and crude Lea DeLaria) is hankering for a pardon, his meek secretary Stephanie (an always-reliable-for-a-laugh Rachel Dratch) is trying to assert herself, and the journalist Chris (a remarkably grounded Lilli Cooper) is snooping around for a scoop.
The jokes are sometimes funny, mostly vulgar, with an overreliance on sex jokes and gross-out humor (the same puke gag is used not once or twice, but three times). The cast have genuine comic chemistry with each other, and the audience around me guffawed in particular at Dratch’s antics. Thanks to Linda Cho’s costumes, I heard the loudest audience laugh this season over a piece of clothing: the high-heeled Crocs worn by Williams, who should be nominated for a Tony Award for how well she pulls them off.
Stroman, a master of moving multiple bodies around a room, manages to keep up the zany energy without dissolving into unintelligible chaos — the scenes that feature all the women are truly the highlights of the show, with every woman given room to take up space while keeping the main tension of the scene intact. The personalities on display here are so loud that it’s a feat they don’t overwhelm each other. Instead, they complement each other. The calm energy of Williams, Cooper, Hough, and Nakamura perfectly pairs with the manic energy of White, Dratch, and DeLaria.
Throughout the play, there’s a familiar refrain, spoken about different women: “Why isn’t she president?” It’s truly the eternal question. And after the last presidency, which inspired POTUS, we need to have a laugh, even if it’s a bitter one, about how the patriarchy is a rotting zombie that refuses to die. But while POTUS starts off on a provocative note (the first word in the show is “cunt”) and is pleasurably chaotic in its first act, the play loses steam during the second, and ultimately cannot decide what kind of play it wants to be.
Fillinger told The New York Times that the play was inspired by the women who helped support the Trump Administration. Someone should tell Stroman and the cast. POTUS wants to have it both ways: It wants you to sympathize with the women supporting this terrible man in the White House and cheer them on as they learn to empower themselves, but it doesn’t interrogate what kind of women would put aside their morals to support a man who has no problem grabbing women by the pussy. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Melania Trump were women working in the White House, but no one would look to them as a bastion of moral fortitude. They don’t really care, so why should we?
And it’s not clear, besides the fact that these women are a diverse group, why the audience should be cheering for them. These women talk in bro speak (“get off my dick”). William’s Margaret has abandoned her community to chase white supremacy (which Cooper’s Chris calls her out on in one scene that has no follow-through or deeper exploration). There’s also group encouragement when Hough’s Dusty offers to give blowjobs to the Secret Service and goes through with it. A woman prostituting herself on behalf of other women doesn’t make it more empowering. You cannot girlboss your way out of the patriarchy; you’re just reaffirming its toxic practices.
Ultimately, POTUS goes for an easy ending by teasing the audience with the possibility of a female president and female retribution. But considering we’re not anywhere near that reality, and women are losing rights to their own bodies as we speak, such overtures of hope ring hollow. Reality is its own farce at the moment, and no one’s laughing.
Photo credit: Lilli Cooper, Rachel Dratch, and Vanessa Williams in POTUS. (Photo by Paul Kolnik)