Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Photo courtesy of Michael Brosilow
The women of the White House navigate an increasingly chaotic day in Selina Fillinger’s play “POTUS.”

The first word we hear in “POTUS” is so vulgar, I cannot repeat it. Yet, the unnamed fictional president uses a variation of it to describe his wife.
That’s just the first mishap in this brash, farcical comedy of errors, whose full title is “POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive.” Now playing at the Steppenwolf Theatre, the play premiered in April 2022 as the Broadway debut of playwright Selina Fillinger (Communication ’16)
The subtitle is fitting. Like the show “Veep,” “POTUS” pushes the scandal-ridden president offstage to spotlight the antics of those around him. Each of the performers give their characters clear personalities within the unfolding mayhem, with some trying to keep their cool and others becoming more and more unhinged.
“POTUS” is at its best at the end of the first act, when the entire ensemble comes together to handle the scandals that have come their way, including an unexpected pregnancy and the arrival of the president’s drug-dealing sister. A beaming Chloe Baldwin emerges as a particularly formidable presence portraying Dusty, the president’s mistress; Baldwin reveals Dusty to be both a clever thinker and an enthusiastic singer-dancer.
Director Audrey Francis keeps “POTUS” moving at a brisk pace, sending cast members rushing on and offstage in a seemingly never-ending frenzy. The play’s minimal but versatile set pieces move around to signal setting changes, while Press Secretary Jean (an explosive Karen Rodriguez) and Chief of Staff Harriet (an eternally frazzled Sandra Marquez) sometimes use a rotating platform onstage to simulate walk-and-talk conversations.
Fillinger’s script tries to barrel forward with this dynamism, but it loses steam after the first act’s shocking ending. I found myself questioning what kind of story she was trying to tell.
There are plenty of jabs at the hypocritical, self-serving nature of America’s political system, and “POTUS” lays bare the disastrous consequences of marginalizing capable female politicians. The first lady and chief of staff are both repeatedly asked, “Why aren’t you president?” Their response: “That’s the eternal question.”
But sometimes it feels more like Fillinger is leaning into chaos for its own sake. The sexual vulgarisms, gross-out gags and physical stunts are funny in bursts, but several become too repetitive for their own good.
Many of the more entertaining moments eventually come from nervous secretary Stephanie, Caroline Neff, who runs around in an inflatable tube and drapes herself in an American flag, among other things, during an inadvertent hallucinatory trip.
In one particularly searing moment, reporter-slash-mother Chris (Celeste M. Cooper) almost makes the president’s cronies answer for their complicity, blaming them for the “whole f–king world” being “on fire.”
But, the play does not linger on the harshness of this scene, deflating its potential impact. After a play filled with both snappy arguments and comical moments of connection, “POTUS” settles for an abrupt turn into sincerity complete with a reappropriation of its first word. While the moment purports to be crowd-pleasing and empowering, the drastic tonal shift makes it feel somewhat hollow.
“POTUS” isn’t sharp or cohesive enough to suggest an effective way to extinguish the fire. But it’s still fun to watch the world burn.
“POTUS” runs through Dec. 10 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @edwardsimoncruz

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