Keep an eye out for Alice Paul’s bust.
Remember Paul, the suffragist who helped secure the vote for women in 1920 and then wrote the still unratified Equal Rights Amendment? Otherwise, you can go downtown to the public theater to see “Suffs”, the musical about Paul and his colleagues.
But in uptown, Paul is a projectile. Or rather, in “POTUS”, the on-and-off catchy and hilarious prank that kicked off on Wednesday at Shubert, a plaster sculpture of his face is. It’s Paul who brings down the curtain on the first act of Selina Fillinger’s brutal feminist comedy — and with it, in a way, the patriarchy itself.
I would give too much to say exactly how a sculpture defeats Fillinger’s anonymous, unseen president, who may remind you of someone who, in real life, recently held the position and still thinks he does. The game, in any case, is happy to be rid of him. Its weighty caption – “Behind every big fool are seven women trying to keep him alive” – makes it clear that “POTUS” is less interested in the incompetent man than in his hyper-competent enablers.
“POTUS” is actually an encyclopedia of empowerment, a natural field guide to the various poses women who outsource their souls find themselves in. The classic cases are Harriet, the embattled president’s chief of staff, and Jean, his constantly caught off-guard press secretary. What Jean (Suzy Nakamura) says to Harriet (Julie White) applies to both of them: “You replace it every day, you’ve been doing it for years. You clean up his mess, make excuses, do his job, then wake up and start again.
The day “POTUS” is set means trying to keep the president on track as he faces a series of public commitments, including a nuclear nonproliferation conference, political endorsement, a photo opportunity with disabled veterans and a gala honoring female leadership. board with the appropriate acronym FML. At 9 o’clock in the morning he is already disastrously deviated, having referred to the first lady, in her first appearance, with a word which should have been unspeakable and which is in any case unprintable here.
Although there doesn’t seem to be any love lost between the two, Margaret, the first lady, is no Melania Trump, except for the feline smugness that is the top note of Vanessa’s elegant performance. Williams. Margaret is spectacularly accomplished: Stanford and Harvard graduate, lawyer, author, gallery owner and taekwondo practitioner. Still, she has to put up with and cover up her husband’s sordid affairs, including one with a “woke puff” named Dusty (Julianne Hough), who shows up at the White House vomiting “blue raz” slush.
How Dusty enables the President to achieve her own spectacular accomplishments, which include both adventurous sex games and flax cultivation, I let Hough — who, like the play, is happily dirty — reveal.
In any case, Dusty introduces a new note in the debates which, until his arrival, seem, in Susan Stroman’s prestissimo production, at least vaguely linked to reality. You can imagine that a woman like Stéphanie, secretary to the president, who speaks five languages and has a photographic memory, could still be scorned as a loser in this milieu, because she is pusillanimous and has no polish. The first lady calls her “a menopausal toddler” – a description that Rachel Dratch, with her repertoire of grimaces and pouts, fully inhabits.
And Lilli Cooper, winning even while whining, makes it easy to imagine how a woman like Chris, a Time magazine reporter and newly divorced mother, could be worried about her job despite her experience and expertise. Jean warns her that there are always younger male colleagues who “can tweet you, text you, swallow a Red Bull and work three days straight”. While Chris, on hand to interview the first lady, spends most of the game multitasking just to keep himself afloat – coordinating with his babysitter, ex, editors and subjects while pumping breast milk or scaring him away.
Still, you’d gladly include her as one of the women the piece asks about, frustrated and shocked, “Why aren’t you president?”
Dusty doesn’t fit that bill, gifted as she is. Neither does the seventh character, Bernadette (Lea DeLaria), the exuberant and frankly criminal sister of the president. The only country you could imagine her as president of would be a despotic narco-state, the kind that DeLaria, having a bullet in the role, suggests isn’t much different from ours.
If Dusty and Bernadette, as outside forces, are needed to convey the prank, they eat away at its foundations. The point of the satire, so perfectly sharp in the initial confrontations – with White and Nakamura forming a formidable cast of comedians – begins to dull as the focus shifts from verbal to physical humor.
This physical humor is not always skillfully rendered. (Dratch does it wonderfully, but the fight choreography is unconvincing). of itself, meaning hysteria but not giving us much chance to absorb it. (The sitcom’s bright lighting is by Sonoyo Nishikawa.) As the women move on from cleaning up the men’s messes to their own mess, you can feel some of the air, or maybe milk, escaping comedy.
In a way, it’s a faithful expression of Fillinger’s conviction, because she told Amanda Hess in The Timesthat “if you take the man out of the room, the patriarchy still exists and we still play by its rules”.
But in extending this idea to comedy, Fillinger, like a politician, tries to have it both ways. In this film, her Broadway debut, the means don’t always work together. As farce, “POTUS” still plays by old and almost by definition masculine rules; farce is built on tropes of domination and violence. On the other hand, and more fortunately, “POTUS” makes us live the double-bind of exceptional women without the intermediary of men who depend on their complicity. “He’s the arsonist, but you gave him kindling,” Chris, the reporter, tells the others.
Or as Harriet, the chief of staff, puts it in a line Alice Paul might have appreciated: “He can’t last if you stop saving him.” Maybe that’s also true for male-dominated pranks.