NEW YORK — The next best thing to “Veep” has arrived on Broadway, a profane West Wing comic strip of a play in which a septet of hyper-caffeinated actresses let their funny flags fly. This seven-alarm comedy goes by the demure name of “POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive.” And really, the title is a lie.
At least, the “Keep Him Alive” part is a lie. Because in playwright Selina Fillinger’s gratifying farcical construct, the fondest wish of several of the women orbiting a philandering, mendacious, incompetent (and, er, partially seen) president is that he might do a full gainer off a White House balcony. You’ll have to book a seat at the Shubert Theatre, where the play had its official opening Wednesday night, for all the frenzied shenanigans that slake one’s thirst for sweet political revenge — a dish here served hilariously superheated.
Your cabin crew for this raucously turbulent flight has impressive comic credentialing. Rachel Dratch, Vanessa Williams, Lea DeLaria and Julianne Hough are probably the best known, but there’s no slouch among their extremely funny co-stars, Julie White, Lilli Cooper and Suzy Nakamura. Veteran director Susan Stroman, universally known in theaterland as Stro, is a choreographer by training. She has the mechanics of farce down pat, a knowledge base that ensures this team at all times has clockwork timing in its arsenal.
“POTUS” is one of the last plays to open in a wild April that concludes a Broadway season packed with them. And it’s the most harmoniously realized of the three nonmusical productions that this week draw a curtain on Broadway’s 2021-2022 opening nights. The other two, revivals of “Macbeth,” starring Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga, and Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” at Lincoln Center Theater, are tiresomely strained directorial efforts at putting idiosyncratic spins on timeless work. Unlike “POTUS,” they left me cold.
“Macbeth,” which marked its opening night Thursday at the Longacre Theatre, is another stab at auteur’s Shakespeare by director Sam Gold, who staged bracing tragedies off-Broadway but has stumbled with the classics on Broadway. His “Othello” with Craig and David Oyelowo at New York Theatre Workshop in 2016 was a riveting triumph, and his follow-up a year later, “Hamlet” at the Public Theater starring Oscar Isaac, evinced an ingenious, earthy engagement with the play’s poetry.
But, as with his catastrophic “King Lear” with Glenda Jackson on Broadway three years ago, his “Macbeth” amounts to a puzzling textual wrestling match in which the director himself gets pinned. The mix-and-match conceits, rolled out willy-nilly on a stripped-down Longacre stage, overwhelm any attempt at developing compelling characters. Squandered in this effort are the exertions of actors such as Amber Gray, playing Banquo, and Paul Lazar, as Duncan and the Porter.
The heart sinks in the opening moments, when actor Michael Patrick Thornton greets the audience with an irritatingly pedestrian preamble about belief in witches in the era of King James I, and how Shakespeare wrote “Macbeth” during a pandemic. Can’t we just do the play?, I thought to myself. Meantime, the three witches, at least one in an outfit that looks as if it were ordered out of a Vermont Country Store catalogue, chop carrots at a kitchen station. It’s not toil and trouble that’s bubbling, apparently. It’s goulash.
Struggling to float toward each other in this confounding stew are Craig and Negga. A performance flow interrupted by multiple cases of covid in the cast may have seriously impeded the progress of finding the play’s emotional core, because this production lacks one. Negga, who played a potent Hamlet herself in 2020 for the Gate Theatre of Dublin, has the most success here, as a Lady Macbeth with a palpable sexual hold over her husband. But Craig’s Macbeth is a bit of a blur, a portrayal lost in the heavy mists, which the cast spreads repeatedly, via handheld foggers. Come to think of it, the best performance in “Macbeth” is a device: the smoke that rises out of the collar of the hooded cloak worn by Banquo’s ghost.
The less said the better here about the extravagantly visual “The Skin of Our Teeth,” directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz. Wilder’s play, an absurdist survey of humankind’s remarkable endurance through all manner of cataclysm across the ages, doesn’t need the layers of attitudinal commentary Blain-Cruz adds. At three hours, it is a tediously misfiring talkathon, leavened only by some commendable performances, particularly that of Roslyn Ruff as the matriarch of the indestructible Antrobus family.
The pacing of “POTUS,” on the other hand, is as brisk as the clowning. “Everyone’s intense here” is the understatement of the evening uttered by Dratch’s Stephanie, a church mouse of a West Wing secretary. It’s the Broadway role this gifted “Saturday Night Live” alumna was born for; wait for the moment she is medicinally freed of her inhibitions. Every player, in fact, gets funny moments: The laughs are doled out so judiciously that the actors’ contracts may have been drawn up with the equal protection clause in mind.
Occasionally, of course, the volume of high jinks on Beowulf Boritt’s grandly rendered, revolving set of West Wing interiors becomes a little too frenetically amplified. But watching these performers go all out affords ample payoffs. Hough is a revelation as a seductive farm girl given an extra-special invitation to the White House by an extra-grateful chief executive. Williams, playing an elegantly self-absorbed first lady, reveals an unbridled deftness for political satire. White, as an embittered workhorse of a chief of staff, comes to a boil with delightful regularity.
The roster is filled out smashingly by Nakamura, as the tightly wound press secretary; Cooper, portraying a Time magazine reporter whose bad aim with the bust of a famous suffragist sets the mayhem in motion; and DeLaria, as the president’s drug-dealing sister just sprung from prison. They all run amok at the top of Fillinger’s wacky government by the people, of the people and, most importantly, for the people.
POTUS, by Selina Fillinger. Directed by Susan Stroman. Sets, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, Sonoyo Nishikawa; sound, Jessica Paz. About 2 hours. At Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St., New York.
Macbeth, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Sam Gold. Set, Christine Jones; costumes, Suttirat Larlarb; lighting, Jane Cox; sound, Mikaal Sulaiman; original music, Gaelynn Lea. With Phillip James Brannon, Asia Kate Dillon, Grantham Coleman, Maria Dizzia, Paul Lazar, Amber Gray, Bobbi MacKenzie. About 2 hours 25 minutes. at Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., New York.
The Skin of Our Teeth, by Thornton Wilder, with additional material by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz. Sets, Adam Rigg; costumes, Montana Levi Blanco; lighting, Yi Zhao; sound, Palmer Hefferan. With Gabby Beans, James Vincent Meredith, Priscilla Lopez, Paige Gilbert, Julian Robertson. About 3 hours. At Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 W. 65th St., New York. All three shows available via telecharge.com. 212-239-6200.