Review: With POTUS, SpeakEasy Stage Company Finds the Laughs in Politics

This production runs through October 15 at the Roberts Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion at Boston Center for the Arts

By: Sep. 23, 2023
Review: With POTUS, SpeakEasy Stage Company Finds the Laughs in Politics

As the saying goes, “Behind every great man, there’s a great woman.” So when that man is considerably less than great, not to mention also the president of the United States, there may need to be several women.

And that’s what we get in playwright Selina Fillinger’s aptly titled all-female farce “POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive,” now being given an exuberant production by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Roberts Theatre, through October 15.

Fillinger’s sharply written script covers a lot of contemporary ground – from gender power dynamics and the state of American affairs to the steep price exacted by the reckless decision-making of incompetent leaders – in the 2022 Broadway comedy about a scandal-prone president and the female staffers left to clean up his messes.

Absent any attempt at character-establishing buildup, the hilariously hepped-up proceedings are at full speed from moment one when the unseen president makes a shocking comment about the first lady at an important White House gathering, sending his loyal team into crisis-control mode.

No stranger to performing broad satire, veteran Boston actor Paula Plum, in her SpeakEasy directorial debut, has assembled a cast that’s wonderfully adept at the physicality of farce and more than capable of keeping up with the show’s often breathless pace.

As the take-no-prisoners first lady, Margaret, Crystin Gilmore makes it clear that while she is married to the president, she isn’t wedded to his policies or his personal predilections. Gilmore makes Margaret’s implacability impossible to resist. Lisa Yuen, seen this summer in “The Prom” at SpeakEasy, is the understandably harried Harriet, the president’s chief-of-staff and ringmaster of the White House circus created by his questionable actions. The marvelous Yuen doesn’t miss a beat or waste a single facial expression. Laura Latreille, as Jean, the press secretary, makes comic hay out of a pained expression, while Marianna Bassham has some wild moments as an insecure secretary coming out of her shell and into an inner tube.

As Chris, a magazine reporter who smells a scoop, Catia carries off her character’s breast-pump sight gag with winning nonchalance, while also giving the play some needed grounding that will likely resonate with many. When Chris is relegated to features and sees her preferred hard-news beat slipping through her fingers, the been-there, done-that Jean cautions her that she has younger male co-workers who “can out-tweet you, out-text you, chug a Red Bull and work three days straight.”

Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda injects the proceedings with visual pop – aided by costume designer Rebecca Glick, whose work is solid throughout – and an outsider’s, indeed outlaw’s, perspective as the happy-in-her-own-skin Bernadette, the president’s drug-dealing sister. Providing the production with contemporary sensibilities and some of its most impressive physical comedy bits is Monique Ward Lonergan as Dusty, the president’s wacky young mistress.

If audience reaction to last Sunday’s matinee – where hearty laughter was the order of the day – is any indication, Fillinger is mining comedy gold with this feminist farce.

She’s helped here by Jenna McFarland Lord’s set design, which includes plenty of cleverly askew doors – opening, closing, slamming, revealing, and concealing as doors do in every farce – and a presidential seal on the floor that switches out the customary bald eagle for a dazed-looking turkey.

While the second act breaks down into a slapstick free-for-all, act one slides more effectively between the laughs and the messaging to make the point that many men continue to manipulate women into unearned loyalty and unfair subservience, to hold firm to their power in politics and business.

So while “POTUS” does explore timely topics, its real strength is in the way it turns traditionally male-dominated farce on its ear. Under Plum’s high-energy direction, this adroit ensemble milks every laugh with winning abandon and reminds us that if you want something done right, ask a woman.

Photo caption: Laura Latreille, Monique Ward Lonergan, Lisa Yuen, Catia, and Crystin Gilmore in a scene from the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of “POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive.” Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

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