Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
POTUS: or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive, which opened recently at Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Roda Theatre is therefore a rather tough one for me. Playwright Selina Fillinger has crafted some brilliant lines and broadly drawn characters and placed them in an environment that is ripe for farce (The White House) that had the audience roaring regularly on the night I attended. Although I was often laughing with them, I left the theater feeling Fillinger had broken some dramatic rules–and also left a lot of comedic possibilities on the table, weakening the overall impact of the show.
The set-up for POTUS is rather simple: the President (never seen onstage) has started his day by making a crude, insensitive comment in the presence of several diplomats and members of the press. This leads to consternation and concern for his chief of staff, Harriet (Dierdre Lovejoy), his press secretary, Jean (Kim Blanck), his personal secretary, Stephanie (Susan Lynskey), and his wife Margaret (Stephanie Pope Lofgren). As they work to contain the brewing scandal (which, interestingly, never seems to gather traction in the media), other women in the President's life arrive on scene to make the lives of his staff even more chaotic.
There's Chris (Dominique Toney), a journalist waiting to interview the First Lady (and pumping her breasts for her twins while she bides her time). But things really start to go south when the President's bit on the side, Dusty (Stephanie Styles), shows up, pregnant, followed soon after by his sister Bernadette (Allison Guinn), a drug dealer who has wangled a furlough from prison to hit up her brother for a pardon he shouldn't give.
The cast is excellent. Susan Lynskey gets some of the best physical business of the play, especially when her character accidentally downs some of Bernadette's pills hidden in a bottle of Tums and goes on a wild, hallucinogenic trip. As the chief of staff and press secretary, Lovejoy and Blanck have a marvelous chemistry, bantering/bickering with each other as they attempt to find a way to spin the President's comment that the First Lady didn't show up for an event because "she was having a cunty morning." As ditzy Dusty, Styles is a triumph, with her squeaky voice and pint-size physicality that might put you in mind of Kristin Chenoweth. Her face can go from blank cogitation to brilliant, beaming realization as she catches up to the smarter, snarkier women around her.
However, playwright Fillinger disappointed me by breaking one of the key rules of comedy–that it be based on truth. Yes, it's okay to bend the rules, but by ignoring some of the facts of life in a modern White House (like how a president is rarely out of sight of staff and Secret Service), Fillinger not only subverts our expectations, but she also misses out on some opportunities for even more comedy. The greater the obstacles the women have to overcome, the more satisfying their success at surmounting them would be.
Despite this, the many hysterical (and edgy and profane) lines, delivered by this top-notch cast (and on a gorgeously realized set by Andrew Boyce), still make POTUS well worth seeing.
POTUS: or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive runs through October 22, 2023, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm, and Wednesdays at 7:00 pm. Matinees are Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 pm. Tickets range from $45-$134. For tickets and information, please visit www.berkeleyrep.org or call box office at 510-647-2949.