A funny seven-woman play that amused New York audiences four about four months on Broadway last spring and summer has just arrived as the season opener at Berkeley Repertory Theater. And it's a fun one, to be sure.
The full title is POTUS; or Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive. Young playwright Selina Fillinger saw her first Broadway production by the age of 28, and with POTUS, she got to explore her love of classic farce, with all of its amusing tropes — slamming doors, surprise guests, overheard secrets, intoxication, stage slaps, and more. Getting to use the White House as the setting, during a fictional but clearly chaotic presidential administration, adds its own layers of geopolitical and cultural humor, and by the end the play even gets to toy with a few more serious themes.
While this is an ensemble piece through and through, the heart of the play may be Harriet (Deirdre Lovejoy), the president's long-suffering chief of staff. We open on a morning in which Harriet and the press secretary, Jean (Kim Blanck), are addressing a gaffe by the president in front of several visiting dignitaries in which he referred to his wife by a certain unpleasant word. We will soon learn that while multiple smart women may be running this show, the president himself is our offstage, unseen clown — and the running joke, which circulates to almost all the characters, is, "Why isn't she the president?"
We soon meet First Lady Margaret (Stephanie Pope Lofgren), who is on a quest to appear more "earthy" and is thus wearing high-heeled Crocs; and the president's personal secretary Stephanie (Susan Lynskey), who speaks five languages but has lately been trying to "take up more space" in the world and stand up to her more forthright peers.
A trio of outsiders also make their way quickly into the story — Chris (Dominique Toney), a HuffPo journalist looking for a scoop who spends much of the first act pumping breast milk; Dusty (Stephanie Styles), who arrives at the White House pregnant after an apparent dalliance with the president; and Bernadette (Allison Guinn), the president's recently incarcerated, drug-dealing lesbian sister whom he's been threatening to pardon.
The ingredients are all there, obviously, for some comedy, and comedy there is. The first act is filled with laugh lines and hilarious situations, buoyed in large part by the chaos introduced by the arrivals of Dusty and Bernadette — with Styles and Guinn arguably being the strongest comedic actors of the bunch. As the over-achieving First Lady, Lofgren is also terribly funny, and Lynskey does the heavy lifting of the physical comedy load, becoming the show's main clown after accidentally taking a few too many of Bernadette's pills.
While successful on the level of pure comedy, the play doesn't rise to the level of farce's great paradigms — and some of that shortfall may be in the direction by Annie Tippe. The play was directed on Broadway by veteran choreographer Susan Stroman, and the Berkeley Rep production, at least on opening night, lacked some of the sparkle and deft timing that a farce like this demands. There were too many missed beats and fumbled falls for it to feel like a well-oiled machine — but maybe that will come with a few more performances.
And the play's ambitions as a kind of feminist satire or revenge fantasy also fall short a bit. As Harriet, Lovejoy is only halfway convincing as the ridiculously competent right hand to a president, and script-wise, her closing catharsis doesn't feel earned.
There remains much to love and laugh at in this play, and when it comes to politics, both foreign and domestic, we could all use a few light-hearted laughs at politicians' expense these days.
'POTUS; or Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive' plays through October 22. Find tickets here.
Top image: Stephanie Styles (Dusty), Deirdre Lovejoy (Harriet), Kim Blanck (Jean), and Allison Guinn (Bernadette) in Selina Fillinger’s gleefully feminist satire, POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive. Photo by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre