Hail to the queef, the cunt, and the many other colorful phrases, obscenities, and epithets that get volleyed around the White House in Selina Fillinger’s political satire POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive.
Politics ain’t for babies, especially at the highest level, so blowing off steam by cursing like a sailor just seems to be what gets an overtaxed, under-appreciated staffer through a tough day.
And this day, as it careens ahead into one disaster after another, will be especially tough for staffers, the First Lady, and POTUS himself, who never actually appears onstage. But he gets the whole shitstorm started by referring to his wife as “cunty” — and not in a good way — during a meeting with foreign dignitaries.
Managing potential fallout from the flub falls to the President’s harried Chief of Staff, Harriet (Naomi Jacobson); officious press secretary, Jean (Natalya Lynette Rathnam); and, begrudgingly, the First Lady, Margaret (Felicia Curry).
A million other complications, from petty to Presidential, threaten to further derail the day: determined journalist and new mom, Chris (Yesenia Iglesias), hiding out in the West Wing; an unexpected visit from POTUS’ much-younger mistress, Dusty (Sarah-Anne Martinez); and a really unexpected visit from his ne’er-do-well lesbian sister, Bernadette (Kelly McAndrew).
Meanwhile, the President’s secretary, Stephanie (Megan Hill), tries to control the increasing flow of traffic in and out of the Oval Office. But she becomes nearly uncontrollable herself, thanks to an ill-timed encounter with hallucinogens. Ah, the supposedly funny drug trip, played to the cartoonish hilt by Hill, who takes Stephanie’s acid-fueled shenanigans way past over the top.
Margot Bordelon’s fleet, sleek, in-the-round production at Arena hits best when it’s just shy of over-the-top, as in Curry’s vividly vain, but trying to seem “earthy,” First Lady. FLOTUS’ rapt description of the elaborate pleasure she takes in game hunting lands precisely at the intersection of laugh-out-loud funny and psychologically disturbing that suits this satire.
Bordelon, the cast, and crack stage management team keep the play’s rapid series of entrances, exits, and fiery têtes-à-têtes paced with precision. The solid transitions are greatly abetted by Marika Kent’s nimble lighting design, which really gets the job done during the slow-motion action climax of the first act.
Attacking the challenge of picking up the second act right where the action left off, the cast takes a moment to get back up to speed, then once again, we’re racing.
The production moves like a well-oiled machine. Fillinger’s play, however, actually creaks and stalls a bit, too reliant on broad gags and attempts at being “shocking,” when the subtler digs at Capital culture are some of the sharpest.
There’s nothing subtle about the ditzy mistress, though. Despite the play’s overall appreciation for the power of women, and the power of women coming together to overcome, as the press notes put it, male arrogance and political posturing, it still isn’t that generous to the youngest woman here.
Dusty, the mistress, is a walking joke that we’ve heard before. Martinez imbues her with endearing qualities that nevertheless do not overcome the positioning of the character as the sad antithesis of truly powerful women like Harriet or FLOTUS.
The show’s running joke for when one of these women comes up with a great idea or opportune solution is for someone to ask, “So why isn’t she President?” It becomes a slogan of female empowerment, but doesn’t apply favorably to every woman in the room. Even on this more equitable playing field, somebody still has to be the butt of the joke.
POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive (★★★☆☆) runs through Nov. 12 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW. Tickets are $59 to $95. Call 202-488-3300, or visit www.arenastage.org.
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