As I sat through POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive (through October 22 at the Roda Theatre of the Berkeley Rep), I found myself thinking of the underrated sitcom NewsRadio. I thought of Bill McNeal (the late, great Phil Hartman) performing anachronistic political tunes as part of his ill-fated attempt to appeal to younger listeners. Listen, if you love Vaudeville political zingers, more power to ya. But thinking it will automatically strike a chord with young voters is, to say the least, asinine.
I wasn’t the youngest audience member for the Rep’s first POTUS masked matinee—I saw at least one pre-teen there with their mother—but I was probably the only adult not eligible for AARP (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I was also the only one not laughing from start-to-finish. That’s not too surprising, considering how Selina Fillinger’s play is the sort of toothless, easy-shot-taking, milquetoast “comedy” that’s made Jimmy Fallon one of the highest paid hosts on television—just like his equally-bland predecessor, Jay Leno.
In fact, the most surprising thing about Fillinger’s play was that its world premiere was just last year. If it weren’t for the use of mobile phones, one would swear this was some Clinton-era throwback that was pulled out of a drawer 30 years late. Sure, the First Lady is a lukewarm stand-in for Michelle Obama, but this white feminist script recalls SNL sketches in the days before the diversity of Barack Obama, the dangerous fascism of Trump, or even ineptitude of Dubya. This is an eight-minute sketch about the Clinton administration that’s somehow been stretched to two hours.
(And yes, I’m old enough to remember when Phil Hartman played Clinton on SNL. Darrell Hammond had nothin’ on him.)
The story is as thin as a cocktail napkin, but here it is: the never-seen POTUS (that’s what everyone calls him, even relatives) is in hot water after announcing to the press that the First Lady was “having a cunt-y morning.” This sends his staff into damage-control mode, particularly, White House Chief of Staff Harriet (Deirdre Lovejoy) and White House Press Secretary Jean (Kim Blanck), who are eager to find a silver lining before the prez speaks at the Female Models of Leadership (FML) conference that evening. The pair encounter speed-bumps along the way, in the form of aforementioned First Lady Margaret (Stephanie Pope Lofgren); journalist Chris (Dominique Toney); the prez’s pregnant, ditzy side-piece, Dusty (Stephanie Styles); and the prez’s tatted, escaped-con, lesbian sister Bernadette (Allison Guinn).
If you want to understand the “OK, Boomer” energy of Fillinger’s play, know that there’s a sad running gag about Harriet not knowing what “FML” stands for. Then there’s mistress Daisy and black sheep Bernadette, both flimsy throwbacks to days of Paula Jones and Roger Clinton, respectively. Oh, those halcyon days when the American public easily dismissed the idea of the POTUS as a horndog.
Fillinger isn’t brave enough to tackle issues like the president being a legit rapist (Trump… and Clinton & Biden, if we’re being honest), that the SCOTUS could repeal Roe v. Wade (which happened as the show was being produced on Broadway), or that racism remains a cancer eating away at a country whitewashing its slave-owning history. Oh sure, racism gets two lines of lip service during Chris’s interview with Margaret, but it’s never spoken of again, and its only inclusion only serves to make one wonder why Margaret married POTUS in the first place.
In fact, none of these characters are real people. Yes, I know the point of a farce—which is what this is, completely with Scooby-Doo chase sequence—isn’t character depth, but a good farce will give you reason to care about the characters and their maladies. If Fillinger wants us to care about Harriet’s very dark turn near the end, she needs more than “just because.” Instead, she gives us an hour-plus of empty slapstick before taking a dramatic swerve that sticks out like a sore thumb.
It’s not helped by director Annie Tippe having every actor read their lines at “10.” The one and only time I laughed involved Dominique Toney, whose subdued performance as Chris is a welcome reprieve. As she’s interviewing Margaret, who asks her about relaxation techniques. Toney’s whispered, laughing-through-the-pain delivery of the line “So relaxing” is so perfect that it’s the only time the show successfully achieves all its goals: showing that women work harder than men, but get none of the credit; providing a moment of pathos that makes the comedy that more potent; and delivering its message without screaming at the audience the way rude Americans shout at non-English-speakers. The moment works so well, it just proves that the rest of the show doesn’t.
At least the majority of the audience behaved themselves and followed the rules of this masked matinee. I was happy to see that my Aranet4’s CO² readings went no higher than 1019ppm the entire show. And that number was just at the end; for most of the show, it hovered between the mid-800s to 900s.
It’s a shame SF sketch troupe Killing My Lobster paused production for the rest of the year, because this is the very sort of women- and minority-made satire at which they excel. The non-comedy of POTUS is so woefully misguided that even if it had come out during the Clinton era, I’m guessing its half-assed treatment of racism and misogyny would have aged as well as old mayonnaise. This play is a rejected Veep subplot stretched to the length of a Lauren Yee drama, but having neither the sharp wit of the former nor the beating heart of the latter. It’s the feature-length equivalent of posting a progressive hashtag by someone who won’t actually take actions that will have tangible political results.
Which is a shame. American needs that kind of action (and comedy) right now.
POTUS, OR BEHIND EVERY GREAT DUMBASS ARE SEVEN WOMEN TRYING TO KEEP HIM ALIVE runs through October 22 at Roda Theatre of the Berkeley Rep. Tickets and further info here.