With a subtitle like that, it's easy to see POTUS as a knee-jerk response to politics of the day. But with a little perspective – and a trip to the Shubert to see what the show actually entails – the result is an incredibly clever and smart representation of women, who in this case keep the titular dumbass and his White House running.
This Selina Fillinger play is somewhat of a rarity, opening cold on Broadway with no advance engagements and featuring a star studded cast of actors and comedians who embody the characters she's created as if they were made for them. We first meet those directly inside the White House, from the chief of staff to First Lady. There's Harriet (Julie White), managing the president's schedule and sitting in on meetings with him in her role as chief of staff; Jean (Suzy Nakamura), the press secretary working to figure out what to tell the press about the president's recent remarks; Margaret (Vanessa Williams), the croc-wearing First Lady who makes constant attempts to be more "earthy" like the general public; and Stephanie (Rachel Dratch), the stressed out power posing secretary in constant fear of losing her job. On the outskirts of the White House social system are Chris (Lilli Cooper), a reporter doing a feature on the First Lady who finds herself in the midst of a chaotic chain of events; Dusty (Julianne Hough), the perky visitor whose true reason for being at the White House is unknown to most of the people in the room; and Bernadette (Lea DeLaria), the president's drug-dealing sister who arrives straight from prison, ankle monitor and all.
A constant question throughout the play is why aren't any of these women the president? From writing his speeches to making excuses for his inability to sit comfortably, these seven women are key to keeping everything behind the doors of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue running smoothly. However, with a cascading and increasingly chaotic series of mishaps plaguing the staffers and their guests throughout the offices, all hell breaks loose as they attempt to get the President through a very busy day. Events that exacerbate the chaos in the White House include the fact that Bernadette's return ignites her attempt to win back Jean, who happens to be her ex-partner; and Stephanie's fear and anxiety of being replaced by Dusty lead to a hallucinogenic experience after taking a drug-laced Tums, accidentally provided to her by Bernadette. Despite these additional occurrences, each of the seven women work tirelessly to clean up the mess of the men around them, not just the mess of the president. Yet he remains a largely unseen figure, despite being the most revered character by the end of it, reminding the audience of the work women are constantly doing when no one is watching or celebrating them for it.
The performances in the play are remarkable, as they navigate the revolving rooms created by Beowulf Boritt that make up the offices, briefing room, and even bathroom of the White House. White, already a comedic genius in her own right, grounds the material in her performance, making you emphasize with the stress of her character's position. Nakamura's performance is pitch-perfect policy wise, and she proves to be the perfect counterpart to DeLaria, making you root for the future potential of their character's relationship, while DeLaria nails her performance in every way. Dratch makes you believe that a hallucinogenic episode could very well include the wearing of the American flag and an inflatable inner tube, perfecting the physical comedy of her role. Williams, in her high heeled crocs and incredible outfits, effortlessly captures the aloof manner of this particular First Lady who attempts to gain a better understanding of the people, missing the mark to much comedic effect. Cooper provides the best connection to reality in her performance, and does so flawlessly, demonstrating the time and the effort it takes to be a working mother as her character is introduced with breast pumps on, all while trying to get a story for her editor. Hough is the biggest surprise of the show, proving to be a comic in her own right as the visiting farm girl from Iowa, while proudly delivering one of the standout lines of the show – "affordable, safe reproductive health care is a basic human right."
During a moment in the world – particularly in political discourse – where the rights of women are being discussed as if they are unnecessary or should be nonexistent, there is something particularly poignant about a show featuring women in the White House, even if the play itself is a farce. The title itself indicates that women keep the world on its axis, and the women in the play certainly do.