It’s often noted that a certain recent POTUS may have decided once and for all that he would campaign for the office back in 2011, when he found himself the butt of jokes at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Then-President Obama typically gets called out for belittling this particular fellow’s role as the TV host of a reality show for washed-up celebrities.
But it was Seth Meyers — still with “Saturday Night Live,” a couple of years ahead of his current assignment as the host of NBC’s “Late Night” — who may have triggered the future candidate’s colossal vengeance. This man of means had hinted he would run as a Republican, Meyers said: “I just assumed he was running as a joke.” Cue the glaring tycoon.
The team behind “POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive,” running now through Oct. 15 at SpeakEasy Stage Company, are likewise playing with fire. More to the point, they’re playing with a dangerous level of hijinks, involving toxic enabling, sheer lunacy, and — yes — the fate of the future of the human race.
Set in the White House on a day bombarded by one ludicrous crisis after another, “POTUS” opens with the unnamed president’s chief of staff (Lisa Yuen, appropriately high-strung — she’s “a walking Kegel”) and press secretary (Elliot Norton Award winner Laura Latreille) hotly debating how to handle the boss’s latest gaffe — a slip of the tongue in which he’s just called his wife a very bad word in public.
Dirty words turn out to be the least of the staff’s issues. There’s the fact that the president can’t sit down for his meetings with world leaders due to an unfortunately placed abscess; the arrival of his wrecking-ball sister, Bernadette (Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda, in camo shorts and combat boots); and a side plot involving a breast-pumping Time reporter (in a feisty, bright performance by the single-named Catia) writing a puff piece on the first lady (Crystin Gilmore) while trying to ward off a young white male go-getter who is angling for her job.
That may sound like a lot, but there’s more. A frisky farm girl from Iowa (Monique Ward Lonergan) shows up with the news that she’s carrying the president’s love child. Amid all this mayhem, the president’s put-upon assistant (played with gusto by Marianna Bassham, another Norton Award winner) dips into Bernadette’s stash of Tums, which turn out to be a very different kind of chewable.
All this slapstick fogs the truths about our patriarchal society at the heart of the play. Each of these women can’t believe they’ve bought into it, yet they’re too busy putting out those fires to take a moment to reassess.
“Why aren’t you president?” is a question that’s posed more than once, when the first lady, the chief of staff, even the Time reporter present themselves as voices of reason in a world gone mad.
Selina Fillinger’s play met with mixed reactions when it premiered on Broadway last year, with Rachel Dratch earning a Tony nomination for her role as the hallucinating assistant. Longtime Boston-area theater fixture Paula Plum, in her SpeakEasy directing debut, has leaned into the play’s inherent anarchy, letting it rip, apparently encouraging the actors to embrace their inner Marx Brothers. (Apologies for alluding to a legendary comedy troupe with Y chromosomes, but it’s apt.)
Jenna McFarland Lord’s stage design is spare, with the actors chipping in to move a funhouse configuration of walls and doors into place between each brief, raucous scene.
“This. Is. Insane,” bawls Chris, the Time reporter, as the chaos comes to a head. The president has been grievously injured in a comic mishap involving a bust of the historic suffragist Alice Paul, and the women are trying to decide whether to make it look like an accident.
It’s their own reckoning. By continually cleaning up POTUS’s messes, they’re at least partially responsible for the country’s imperiled standing in the world and the impending collapse of democracy.
“I mean, hey, it’s almost as if America doesn’t have an endless line of moral credit!” hollers Jean, the press secretary. Imagine that.
By Selina Fillinger. Directed by Paula Plum. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through Oct. 15. Tickets $25-$80. 617-933-8600, speakeasystage.com
James Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him @sullivanjames.