by Tony Frankel on January 30, 2024

in Theater-Los Angeles


Seven women propping up one man at The White House — that’s the premise behind Selena Fillinger’s POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him AliveThe widely produced play, which had its Broadway debut just a little over a year ago, is political but not partisan because its critique of patriarchy can be directed at members of either of the major political parties. But this pro-fem, farcical romp is a strange beast. It’s a very fun script, but even at 100 minutes with intermission it’s not enough to keep you from wearying. Unless, that is, the door-slamming shenanigans and physical comedy is tight, and each performer credible. The Geffen Playhouse is my third visit to the tomfoolery at the Oval Office, after Berkeley Rep and Broadway, and while this production seems to have improved a troubled second act, the first act, which should be chaotic and genuinely hilarious, just doesn’t really take off like it should. Still, I kinda like hanging out with stressed out, foul-mouthed, political badass women.

Celeste Den and Shannon Cochran

Shannon Cochran, Lauren Blumenfeld and Alexandra Billings

The Geffen production, which opened last weekend, is directed by L.A. theater veteran Jennifer Chambers, who has done quite well with dramas to varying degrees of success (A Kid Like Jake, The Cake, Better). Here, she straddles the line between farce and naturalism that just doesn’t jibe (that naturalism did help the rather dramatically inert second act, however). And fight director Julie Ouellette, and I suppose to a degree, intimacy director Amanda Rose Villarreal, don’t come close to succeeding with slapstick — boy, does the action look safe. It should feel dangerous. Because not only is this a farce (slamming doors and high-speed chases), it’s satire, which uses ridicule and exaggeration to expose stupidity in political and social issues. It’s kinda screwball comedy feminism. (“Why isn’t she the President?” they keep asking each other.)

 Shannon Cochran and Alexandra Billings
Lauren Blumenfeld and Jane Levy

While belly laughs are rare, there is a lot to watch from some game performers. It opens with two women, chief of staff Harriet (Shannon Cochranand press secretary Jean (Celeste Den) shouting a single misogynistic slur (um, rhymes with “stunt”) at one another. They are not trading insults. They are expressing their shared disbelief and panic that the President used a variant of this term to refer to the First Lady (Alexandra Billings) before a group of diplomats and cabinet officials.

Jane Levy and Lauren Blumenfeld
Shannon Cochran

He made this comment because an affliction — OK, an anal abscess — resulting from a certain type of sexual activity — OK, hearty buttplay — prevents him from sitting down, which prevents everyone around him from sitting down, and thus he could not see that his wife was in the room. Furthermore, he has not been able to see a doctor about this condition because of his busy schedule — which includes negotiating a nuclear non-proliferation treaty and addressing a major feminist organization.

Ito Aghayere and Alexandra Billings
Jane Levy, Celeste Den and Deirdre Lovejoy

Despite the efforts of the president’s secretary Stephanie (Lauren Blumenfeld) to block the doors with her power poses, the people keep on coming: the first lady Margaret, trying desperately to convince the public of her “earthiness” by wearing Crocs; the breastfeeding reporter Chris (Ito Aghayere), eager for a scoop and pumping at every opportunity; the president’s “dalliance” Dusty (Jane Levy), who is excited to be carrying the president’s fetus; and the president’s sister Bernadette (Deirdre Lovejoy), a recently released butch lesbian and drug dealer — with a customer base in the secret service — who is trying to get the president to pardon her.

Jane Levy and Deirdre Lovejoy
Deirdre Lovejoy and Lauren Blumenfeld

All these characters converge in the West Wing of the White House, and there is a great deal of yelling, scheming, restraining, and maybe even some blow jobs, as the women scramble to cover up and mop up (literally at times) the effects of the POTUS’s indiscretions and stupidity. But as the title suggests, their ultimate job is to keep the president alive — not just politically, but physically. Given breast pumps, Crocs, a hurled bust of feminist Alice Paul, and a rifle, will they succeed in that effort?

Celeste Den, Alexandra Billings, Shannon Cochran and Ito Aghayere
Celeste Den, Ito Aghayere, Shannon Cochran, Jane Levy and Deirdre Lovejoy

A model for the first lady, Billings — surprisingly after her serious turn on the series Transparent — is powerful but far from subtle and complex, nailing the plastic, one-dimensional narcissist who keeps trying and failing to be “earthy” — and she lands a laugh line spectacularly. Levy plays Dusty, the presidential girlfriend and walking scandal machine, as far more downplayed than she was written (a blonde bombshell), but the earnestness undercuts her threat. Blumenfeld is shackled with one-note humor, from the body-posturing feminist warrior to wandering around covered in blood and toting a neon-green inner tube after swallowing a handful of the pills that Bernadette carries in a Tums bottle. It just gets old.

Deirdre Lovejoy and Ito Aghayere
Lauren Blumenfeld and Jane Levy

Overall I liked it but didn’t love it — which says as much about the play as it does this production. I would say about 50% of the jokes landed for me, and even then, about half of those were sharp nose-exhale laughs. It wasn’t as clever or witty as it could’ve been. And while Act II works better here, the playwright drops the ball and lands in ridiculous territory.

Celeste Den and Shannon Cochran
Ito Aghayere

Brett J Banakis’s gorgeous set with its multiple tilted and distorted doors is well-suited to the needs of the goings on, which includes a lot of entrances and exits and slammingOne never knows who is going to come through a given door.

As another presidential election year quickly approaches, productions of POTUS are cropping up like corn. You might be inspired to demand more of your elected officials. Me? I’ll still be here demanding more inspiring theater in Los Angeles.

Alexandra Billings

photos by Jeff Lorch
poster photo by Justin Bettman

POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive
Geffen Playhouse, 10866 Le Conte Avenue in Westwood
Wed-Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on February 25, 2024
for tickets ($39 – $129), call 310.208.5454 or visit Geffen Playhouse

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Robert Leventer February 12, 2024 at 12:47 pm

You are too kind.


John February 17, 2024 at 10:02 am

He is WAY TOO KIND. This production was a mess from start to finish. The comic timing took the day off. The cast did not have a clue how to play farce.I am not quite sure how you DO NOT get a laugh with the opening line but somehow this production didn’t. The set changes were distracting and totally over thought and unnecessary. Unfortunately, even with it’s short running time, the joke was over well before it was.


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