Farce requires a form of plate-spinning in which a tightly rehearsed ensemble must combine physical comedy, hilarious verbal swordplay and exaggerated but believable characters at a pace that is just this side of chaos.
Director Paula Plum and her SpeakEasy Stage troupe for "POTUS, or Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive," achieve that jaw-dropping feat and make it look easy. Granted, they have a terrific script by playwright Selina Fillinger, and a situation that hits way too close to home, even if all the action takes place in the high-pressure world of the White House.
Fillinger opens the comedy with an expletive that immediately makes us sit up straight, if not gasp. But that’s just for starters. As Harriet, the President’s chief of staff (Lisa Yuen, in a carefully calibrated performance), and Jean, his press secretary (a terrifically tightly wound Laura Latreille) try to craft a strategy to manage the fallout from the President’s latest gaffe, which is threatening nuclear disarmament. His expletive described his wife, the incredibly accomplished Margaret (Crystin Gilmore), who has been told she must appear more “earthy,” hence, the appearance of Crocs beneath her power suit. Harriet and Jean enlist the help of Stephanie, the President’s secretary with high skills and low self-esteem (Marianna Basham in an inspired performance — keep an eye out for those well-placed Post-It notes).
As this inner circle attempts to spin an “acceptable” narrative, they are interrupted by the arrival of reporter Chris (Catia, who manages to wear dual breast pumps even as she does her best to get her scoop); the President’s current girlfriend Dusty (Monique Ward Lonergan, doing some hilariously athletic lap dance moves sans lap); and the President’s sister Bernadette (a delightfully brassy Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda), a convicted drug mule, waiting for her brother to sign her pardon.
Each new arrival adds to the mayhem, and as if that weren’t enough, Stephanie, worried about being replaced, pops several of Bernadette’s Tums, which, of course, aren’t Tums. When Jean confiscates Chris’s phone to prevent her from exposing the plan to smooth over the President’s insult, Chris, in frustration, lets fly a bust of the feminist Alice Paul, which catches the unseen president in the head just as he opens the door to enter the room. The second act encompasses the antics of these presidential enablers as they manage this crisis, keeping the chaos at bay while the situation spirals out of control.
Although the intermission seems only to serve as an opportunity to give the actors a chance to catch their breath, and Act II begins only 30 seconds after Act I ends, the pace and tenor shift — almost like a change in key. Plum guides her ensemble to dig a little deeper into their characters as they consider what might happen if they stepped into the spotlight and stopped covering for the inept guy who’s in charge in name only.
Plum expertly balances the abundant talents of her acting ensemble, with Fillinger’s script supporting opportunities for individual performers to showcase their talents without subtracting from the overall effect. Fillinger’s ear for the pumped up political speak — “This is his wheelhouse. Room full of men, talking about weapons and war, not a woman in sight” — and the challenging realities of working moms — “These guys can out-tweet you, out-text you, chug a Red Bull and work three days straight” — is delivered rapid-fire, but never gets lost. Plum also gets ample assistance from fight choreographer and intimacy coordinator Angie Jepson, who transforms slapstick into balletic moves and keeps the action moving and the actors safe, even as the punches, slaps, cell phones and Post-It notes fly.
Jenna McFarland Lord’s spare office set is punctuated by the seal of the President of the United States at the center of the floor, but instead of the bald eagle as the national symbol, this one is dominated by a panicked turkey. Upstage are a series of goofily angled doors that look like they were lifted from the set of “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” although they are painted in muted shades, all the better for Karen Perlow’s lighting to pop them out when needed. Kudos to the performers who manage to spin, adjust and push these doors (along with some help from the stage crew), without slowing the pace of the action one iota.
The crack that appears in the commitment these women make to their work offers a subversive ray of hope for so many women who coddle and cajole men when maybe they should just let the chips fall where they may. Fillinger says the situation could apply to Clinton (remember him?), Trump, but honestly, to lots of situations where women do the work while the man in charge gets the glory. (Not that I would know. Just answering for a friend). It’s a tribute to Fillinger, Plum and this cast that we are able to laugh so hard along the way.
SpeakEasy Stage Company's "POTUS, or Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive" continues at the Calderwood Pavilion's Roberts Stage through Oct. 15.