Despite mixed reviews on Broadway last year, playwright Selina Fillinger’s “POTUS” was the top-produced play in America’s regional theaters this season, according to the nonprofit Theater Communications Group. It’s not that hard to understand why.
The full title of this farce currently on display at the Steppenwolf Theater is “POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Fool There Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive,” and struggling theaters have convinced themselves that this is what audiences want to laugh at most right now. (I don’t believe this is true; I think many people prefer games with complex takes on important issues.)
Still, “POTUS” is a new title that reinforces the perennial fear of Donald Trump, given that the fictional White House in its setting is run by a pro-Trump president who has flamed out diplomacy and created a new environment. A series of crises that fire personnel had to extinguish in a single day, even as traveling fifth-graders stared at the White House in comical disarray.
And since the staff holding the place together is all-female, “POTUS” also comes with plenty of great roles for women with a feminist sensibility and a penchant for comedy.
Steppenwolf Theater Company is one of the first out of the regional gate with this title; here it is led by co-artistic director Audrey Francis in a serious, if uneven, staging that is cast and directed in a very different way from Broadway. (This is original New York production Directed by Susan Stroman.)
Even Stroman, a masterful farce, couldn’t fix some of the problems inherent in the premise. The play implies that the president is a Republican, which suggests that his top staffers, such as chief of staff Harriet (Sandra Marquez) and press secretary Jean (Karen Rodriguez), will also be Republicans or at least sympathetic to the cause. But Fillinger isn’t actually satirizing a Republican White House, which would make good comedy; she’s a more moralistic writer who tries to write supportively of all these women, each of whom is far more capable than the louse of the man they serve. Effective satire often overthrows power rather than mounting a campaign, and the complexity of the cause puts the game at war with itself.
Fillinger often chooses humor over political harmony. For example, Harriet rails against the downward economy for laughs, but this suggests that she is a closet Democrat running a Republican administration, and if so, this would need further investigation.
Francis’ staging, which has some very funny moments but lacks tonal consistency, also strays from satire. Chloe Baldwin plays Dusty, the president’s girlfriend and walking scandal machine, in a much more sophisticated way than is written out, and although I think Fellinger had a Marjorie Taylor Greene model in mind for the First Lady, the great Chicago actress Karen Aldridge is very nuanced and it’s complicated to play such a plastic, one-dimensional narcissist who tries and fails to be “Worldly”.
The staging certainly has its moments, but ultimately lacks a full sense of rising tension and a coherent set of rules. At one point, a small turntable starts moving and adding to the fun, but then this device mostly falls off and we never quite get a sense of the White House geography that the game actually demands.
Aside from the very inspiring lunacy of Caroline Neff’s neurotic presidential secretary, the best scenes here are between the pivotal normative character Marquez, who reminds you of the famous CJ of “West Wing” fame, and Rodriguez, who understands the famous CJ of “West Wing” fame very well passing. Tragedy is actually an experience of chaos. The two women are hilarious in the early parts of the play and eventually become tedious, especially considering their strange obsession with anything that can be done about one’s backside. Instead of talk of boils and clout, you find yourself craving the kind of biting political humor that the young, hugely talented Fillinger can write superbly. And I think it will continue to be so in the future.
I’m honored to say that the audience around me on Sunday was very amused, hooting and hollering at all the dysfunction on display.
For the record, you don’t actually see the president. Or are you?
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
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Review: “POTUS” (2.5 stars)
When: until December 10
Where: Steppenwolf Theater Company, 1650 N. Halsted St.
Working time: 1 hour 50 minutes
Tickets: $20-$114, 312-335-1650 and www.steppenwolf.org