The title character of the President of the United States never appears in “POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive,” a riotous political farce with an all-women cast. The comedy does, however, begin with a crisis he created. The President’s chief of staff, Harriet, and his press secretary, Jean, are jousting over whether the president meant to call his wife the C-word when he said at a press conference that she was having a “cunty” day. It’s arguably the most politically sharp moment in the play, signaling the lengths powerful women, who work in the service of more powerful men, will often go to mask their bosses’ abominable, instrumental treatment of women.
The reward for the staffers is that they remain proximate to power, its glow and potential rewards. They insult and undermine each other as if they were each other’s enemies. In Selina Fillinger’s fast, funny script the verbal bullets come with Tommy-gun speed and a sniper’s aim. The actions, complications and number of characters grow until “POTUS” reaches full-on farce. Imagine Groucho, Chico and Harpo as the Marx Sisters and unleash them in an uncensored season of “Veep” and you have the rough tenor and tempo of “POTUS.” This is the first production directed by Steppenwolf co-artistic director Audrey Francis. A wonderful comedic actress herself, Francis matches the characters’ verbal barbs with nearly uninterrupted, expertly choreographed mayhem. Farce demands convincing pratfalls, surprise entrances and closets to hide in. Francis’ cast of seven sells it all. The characters’ self-importance never wanes, but neither does the parade of their delicious humiliations.
The action, of course, takes place on a day when the President’s calendar is filled with events key to world peace and his political future. The Chief of Staff, played convincingly anxious and efficient by Sandra Marquez, insists to all that her boss hasn’t a minute to spare for anything not already on the schedule. And naturally, it happens to be a day when the President’s marriage is falling apart; his pregnant barely-of-age lover has come knocking; when world powers are in the room next door for nuclear non-proliferation negotiation; and a crucial political endorsement hangs in the balance. Karen Aldridge, as Margaret, the arrogant First Lady aggrieved that her multiple degrees, books and worthy foundation work are little acknowledged, is thwarted at every attempt to speak to her husband. She’s to be the subject of a magazine puff piece reported by Chris (Celeste M. Cooper), a correspondent who must pump breast milk on the job. Cooper manages to keep the pumps in place as she runs around the White House and hides in a closet, where she overhears the news that the President’s secret lover is pregnant. Efforts by the staff to keep the story under wraps go horribly awry, but also bring the women together for a common cause. The second act is less strong, and more confusing than the first. Never mind. The comedy is amped up by Stephanie, a callow, inadvertently drug-addled staffer played with fearless, loony abandon by Caroline Neff.
The very end of the play takes an anomalous pedantic turn as the women set the American flag on fire. The comedy of “POTUS” is itself subversive. Burning the flag risks subverting what the carefully choreographed farce accomplishes. The comedy, however, is as durable as a slapstick star and “POTUS” is a show to fall for.
“POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive” at Steppenwolf Theater Company, 1650 North Halsted, steppenwolf.org. Through December 17, 2023.