‘POTUS’: The seven women keeping the great dumbass alive
From left, Celeste Den, Ito Aghayere, Shannon Cochran, Jane Levy and Deirdre Lovejoy / Jeff Lorch.

LOS ANGELES — A not-so-funny thing happened on the way to the Forum—I mean, Geffen Playhouse. A motorcade of truly presidential proportions waylaid traffic, with siren-blaring, orders-giving motorcycle cops squealing via loudspeakers and SUV-type vehicles tying up traffic, so some self-important high muck-a-muck could impose a mini-police state over Westwood in order to reach some destination. The thought crossed my mind: Either Trump has launched his putsch or it’s the Veep, an L.A. resident, going to watch POTUS on the boards? Through some deft maneuvering, I managed to make my way through the cop-created traffic jam (your tax dollars at work!) and reach the Geffen in time for the curtain, with, thankfully, no White House bigwig in sight. (Ironically, a POTUS press release I received had this in the subject line: “POTUS is Now in L.A. [Without the traffic.]” Can I sue for false advertising?)

POTUS, Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying To Keep Him Alive is the latest evolution of a screen trend that has emerged in recent years featuring “Girls Behaving Badly,” wherein female characters indulge in the same raunchy, outrageous, obscenity-spewing and envelope-pushing antics that the guys act out in outré movies such as The Hangover. Examples of this rules-breaking, supposedly “feminist” film vogue include Bridesmaids and Girls Trip. Now Selina Fillinger, one of the youngest women playwrights to ever have a play produced on Broadway (along with Lorraine Hansberry), has taken this formula to the stage and all the way to the Oval Office with POTUS (aka “President Of The United States” for those of you who don’t understand the inside baseball “CNN-speak” of the chattering class). It’s West Wing meets Joy Ride!

Alexandra Billings / Jeff Lorch

This two-act comedy’s premise is that an outlandish POTUS is propped up by and must contend with a coterie of high-powered gals. They include the outspoken FLOTUS, First Lady Margaret, who in a bit of clever, canny casting is portrayed by trans actor Alexandra Billings, of ABC’s The Conners sitcom, Broadway’s Wicked, and Amazon’s Transparent. Shannon Cochran plays the frazzled, long-suffering chief of staff, the proverbial “adult in the room,” who tries to maintain a shred of order in a chaotic Executive Mansion, even as she’s beset by hot flashes while grappling with menopause. The lesbian Jean (Celeste Den) is the much-put-upon press secretary who likewise tries to keep a lid on things in a White House (where all of the action takes place) spinning out of control. The scoop-scheming correspondent Chris (Ito Aghayere of Star Trek: Picard, Broadway, and Off-Broadway)—a divorcing mother of two who is breast-feeding—helps the spin cycle skip merrily along, as she seeks an exclusive for breaking news.

Throw into this combustible mix the White House aide or intern Stephanie (Lauren Blumenfeld), who ingests some mind-blowing substances and raises the zaniness up many notches. Deirdre Lovejoy is the president’s pardon-seeking, monitor-wearing sister Bernadette—Jean’s former lover and from whom Stephanie probably scored her drugs—adding to the merry mayhem. And the final blow (pun intended) is provided by Dusty (Jane Levy), POTUS’s pregnant, promiscuous, free-spirited, anything-goes mistress.

To (over-the-) top it all, there is even a plot point where it appears as if the president has been assassinated. Quick, get me Jim Garrison and Oliver Stone!

From left, Lauren Blumenfeld and Jane Levy / Jeff Lorch

Notice that no male is in the multiculti cast of POTUS, wherein instead of sidelined Republican or Democratic Party talking points, gender politics are served up galore in Fillinger’s farce that’s reminiscent of HBO’s much funnier Veep series. Set and video designer Brett J. Banakis has decorated the Geffen’s stage with portraits of presidents and décor meant to suggest the White House (although the exact Oval Office replica in pollster/upholsterer extraordinaire Frank Luntz’s mansion is mo’ bettah), plus provided some cable newsy-type projections. Costume designer Samantha C. Jones displays an appropriately goofy satirical sartorial touch, from Margaret’s footwear to Stephanie’s hallucinogenic outfit. Veteran theater director Jennifer Chambers helms the high jinks of her careening cast with aplomb, as her cast zooms up and down the Geffen’s aisles (long-legged theatergoers ensconced in aisle seats beware).

POTUS has more sexual politics than a Kate Millett feminist tome, and enough vulgarity to make Lenny Bruce blush (shrinking violets beware—you’ve been warned). On opening night many in the audience laughed loudly and often and occasionally broke out in applause throughout the rowdy, raucous, raunchy romp. And this foul-mouthed, physical comedy did receive three Tony nominations. Others may find POTUS to be a broad comedy, an excessive, tiresome, strained stab at humor. Is the “Girls Behaving Badly” formula, wherein the gals “equally” indulge in the same lewd, risky, convention-shattering, deranged misconduct as the guys, à la the truly unfunny Joy Ride, really “feminist?”

Playwright Selina Fillinger / Orrin Anderson

Is this what “inclusiveness” means? For example, what’s “liberating” about having female, gay, trans (paging Chelsea Manning!), immigrant, and minority individuals (usually, by the way, desperate for jobs and education) join the bullying, interventionist mercenary military and become war criminals who endlessly occupy, bomb and invade Third World countries willy-nilly in order to make the world “safe” for U.S. imperialism? Or is genuine “equality” where nobody behaves badly? Now, that’s the satire I’d like to see, but likely never shall. O Aristophanes, wherefore art thou?

(By the way, I subsequently, unsuccessfully searched online, then phoned the LAPD to try and find out what/who caused Jan. 26’s traffic jam-causing motorcade in Westwood. But instead of getting a human, I just kept getting automated voice responses—if it was a genuine emergency, I’d have been dead by now. Or, if someone with a real crisis somehow managed to get through to an actual person, there would be no officer available—they’d probably be dispatched to another motorcade, tying up traffic somewhere so some ruling class maharajah could dine out where he/she preferred, commuters be damned. Now there’s the premise of a satire for you…)

POTUS, Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying To Keep Him Alive is being performed at 8 p.m. Tues. through Sat., and on Sat. at 3 p.m., plus Sun. at 2 and 7 p.m. It’s been extended beyond “Presidents Day” to Feb. 25 (at 2 p.m. only), at the Gil Cates Theater, The Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles 90024. Tickets and info here, or call (310) 208-2028. Check traffic reports first.

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Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.