Call them seven sisters-in-comedy. They work hard for the money, and even harder for the laughs, in Arena Stage’s certifiably uproarious “POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive.”
Located somewhere on the satirical dial between “9 to 5” and “Veep,” “POTUS” is a potty-mouthed sendup of life in the fastest lane, the one that ends at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. (And, yes, Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard for the Money” figures vivaciously, too, in Fillinger’s breathless plot.) The playwright has a lot of nerve, portraying accomplished women who work for the commonweal as a besieged, crazed, tormented pack of transactional professionals. And thank goodness she does.
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“POTUS” was a featured funny event on Broadway last year, and it seems even funnier now on more natural turf, a theater complex just about two miles from the people’s house. Staging it in the company town where the company runs America allows Fillinger’s scathing zingers to land with more zing. Washington is a buttoned-up place where everyone takes themselves too seriously. The pleasure of “POTUS” is that it takes absolutely nothing and no one that way.
An audience in the Fich — an ideal in-the-round stage configuration for a head-spinning play — is thrust into a political bonfire of cataclysms. No spoilers will be committed in the making of this notice, so suffice to say that the scandals and calamities back up in “POTUS” like rush-hour traffic on the Beltway. As the subtitle suggests, one of Fillinger’s major conceits is that when a washing of dirty laundry is required, it’s left to women to lug it to the basement.
These seven women make that look easy. Around a dummy of a privileged White male commander in chief with morals so porous they could ooze through a safety net are a West Wing’s supply of skilled farceurs. Naomi Jacobson plays Harriet, the hyper-tense, beleaguered presidential chief of staff; Natalya Lynette Rathnam is Jean, the jaded press secretary; Megan Hill plays Stephanie, the mega-weird office assistant; and Felicia Curry portrays Margaret, the perfectly coifed first lady with the countenance of a Navy SEAL.
Into the frying pan, too, lands Yesenia Iglesias as Chris, a White House reporter for whom new motherhood occasions badly timed nursing duties. Then there are two truly wild wild cards: Sarah-Anne Martinez, playing Dusty, who seems like a heartland naif but is carrying a big secret into the building, and Kelly McAndrew as the president’s roguish sister, Bernadette, a sort-of escapee from an episode of “Breaking Bad.”
This varsity team is managed superbly by Bordelon, who knows how to generate consistent comic friction. Set designer Reid Thompson turns the Fich’s challenging stage dimensions to his advantage, with a spare scenery scheme involving doors and offices that rise on hydraulics and a dominant overhead fixture: a Lucite model of the White House that, thanks to lighting designer Marika Kent, flashes red, white and blue. Ivania Stack’s costumes provide apt fashion highs and lows, including a dazzling pink pantsuit for Curry’s first lady and an aquamarine jacket and skirt for Rathnam’s press secretary that’s wryly mocked by the saucy Bernadette as “very Jackie O. meets Carl Sagan.”
Mind you, some of the humor is adults-only or, at least, only for those who are prepared for the mention of some blue words and sexual acts. It also should be noted — because of the extremely delicate matters this White House is dealing with daily — that “POTUS” is entirely divorced from real-life goings-on, or from making observations about the current occupants.
“POTUS” has been so well cast that it is unnecessary to suggest that anyone outdoes anyone else. But it is certainly worth pointing out that Jacobson, a stalwart on D.C. stages, gets one of the best comic parts of her career. It’s also an opportunity for her to show her range, for at the same time Harriet embodies the exhaustion of an underestimated political survivor. Curry’s steely Margaret is a multidimensional contribution, too, revealing what softness must be relinquished to swim in a shark tank. And McAndrew gets completely right the disruptive swagger of one on the illegal side of entrepreneurship.
I could go on, so I will: Iglesias and Rathnam square off winningly as news gatherer and news gatekeeper; Hill’s Stephanie decompensates marvelously, after the accidental ingestion of something very mind-expanding; and Martinez is a smashing find as a farmer’s daughter who is anything but an innocent.
Collectively, they and the creative team write out a prescription we all need filled: to let it all go for a couple of hours, to gather with friends and strangers, and to permit ourselves to giggle.
POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive, by Selina Fillinger. Directed by Margot Bordelon. Set, Reid Thompson; costumes, Ivania Stack; lighting, Marika Kent; music and sound, Sinan Refik Zafar. About 2 hours. Through Nov. 12 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. arenastage.org.
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