theater review

POTUS and Mr. Saturday Night Mine Laughs From Behind the Scenes

From POTUS, at the Shubert Theatre. Photo: Paul Kolnik

Lights come up on the West Wing, and someone is already yelling. In what looks like the Oval Office (or one down the hall), the president’s harried chief of staff, Harriet (Julie White), is shouting “Cunt!” at press secretary Jean (Suzy Nakamura). In response, the theater takes a moment to register the shock. It’s comedy time.

The subtitle of Selina Fillinger’s brisk new farce POTUS is Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive. In her eerily familiar version of an American administration, this is even more true (and then, as the play progresses, homicidally less true) than usual. Harriet is, of course, quoting, not cursing. She would never use such language! The dingbat president has vulgarly insulted his wife, Margaret (Vanessa Williams), in public, and now Harriet and Jean must spin the wreckage.

Fillinger’s whizbang comedy is not perfect. Its characterization slews crazily around; its grip on gross-out humor is a little loose. (I am too dignified for details, but do not Google “abscess” following your time at the Shubert.) Still, POTUS makes its many effective jokes with its jaw cocked. Every now and then a woman will marvel at another woman’s brilliance and ask, “So why isn’t she president?” Darn tootin’. The best way to make such a point land, is, of course, to demonstrate womanly competence. So Fillinger, her killer cast, and director Susan Stroman go hard in scene after scene. If you laugh, they win — and they really want to win.

The mess on Harriet and Jean’s plates increases: The president’s girlfriend, Dusty (Julianne Hough), barges through, as does the wonderful Lilli Cooper as a White House journalist who does her job while also pumping breast milk. Multitasking is a very feminine trait. Among the subtitular seven are more multitaskers yet, like Rachel Dratch — the tiniest dervish, a whirligig, an entire circus in a Peter Pan collar — as a secretary who accidentally gets high when the president’s drug-toting sister, Bernadette (Lea DeLaria), smuggles something naughty into her Tums.

Even with a super-pro like Stroman in charge, though, some moments in POTUS sag where they should have snap. According to a recent interview with Fillinger, she was still tinkering with the ending, and delays from COVID have hit the cast hard and frequently. Many of the ingredients are in place; they just need to settle — farce requires a lot of rehearsal. Beowulf Boritt’s whizzing carousel set (foreshortened rooms cycle past like dishes on a lazy Susan) is a great collaborator, making jokes even when the women are too busy. And they’ll be fine, given a few more performances to shake out the kinks. The brimmingly talented squad sings a rousing post-curtain-call megamix, just in case you forgot that there are Tony nominees by the fistful up there, several of them for musicals.

Fillinger mostly threads the needle of being a feminist farceuse: She does an excellent job of making tension and conflict possible even though the women rarely turn on each other; the closest she gets to cruelty herself is her early treatment of the Dusty character, and she eases that as the play continues. Her finest stroke lies in setting POTUS in the White House, the one building where you can do both workplace comedy and (Lincoln) bedroom farce. And, like the president who hired all these ladies, she’s lucky in her team. Each actor is strong, but the hilarious White is first among equals. How does she do it? She seems part Muppet (there’s a thing she does with her shoulders that looks like felt-and-rod work), and she can put a button on a scene just by adjusting her glance. The woman even gets laughs with the back of her head. When it comes time to vote — for oh, say, whatever — put her name on the signs in your yard.

There’s another comedy squeaking under the wire into this 2022 season, though it couldn’t be less POTUS-y; it’s very much about the aging-male point of view. Looked at in a certain very specific light, Mr. Saturday Night is the peak of avant-garde experimentation. Okay, okay, it’s not; its aesthetics are so middle-of-the-road, they’re roadkill. But if we’re going to get excited about long-horizon projects like Boyhood and the 20-year Merrily We Roll Along, we should also doff our caps to this odd creation.

When Billy Crystal first played Buddy Young Jr. in his 1992 movie Mr. Saturday Night, he was in his 40s, the character was perhaps 70, and the movie revolved around Buddy’s mid-century TV variety show and the way his temper had eventually burned up his career. Crystal (directing for the first time) wore old-age makeup; it laid on the bitterness and regret with a big brush. But now Crystal is actually in his 70s, ready to revisit Buddy, who has been softened by sentiment. The bare outlines of the plot are the same as the movie’s; the great David Paymer returns to play his brother, Stan, the part that garnered him an Academy Award nomination. But the book by Crystal, Lowell Ganz, and Babaloo Mandel (the original film’s authors) and particularly the new music by Jason Robert Brown feel flabby and thin in this new environment. You know something’s amiss when Shoshana Bean, playing Buddy’s daughter, sings about a job interview, and even though her voice is gold, you would like the singing to stop. The musical numbers all feel like delaying tactics — oddly placed, oddly paced (by director John Rando) and bland.

So why did I enjoy it so much? When the show isn’t trying to be a musical, it puts Crystal up in front of us and has him do Buddy’s act. Crystal is the kind of entertainer whose blade never dulls. Occasionally it even shows a bit of Buddy’s old act, including a clip from the film. In the video, Crystal’s timing is perfect, a pirouette, a riot. What a master he was! What a master he is. They creative team can afford to show us Crystal in his heyday because he hasn’t changed his fundamentals. His high-pitch zany key, the gunfire patter, the Big Characters (your Miracle Max, for instance) — those have fallen away, but his grace is just getting finer and finer. Crystal delivers each punchline like a ping-pong player hitting short; he delicately tips the ball over the net. It’s a class he’s giving, and it’s one you should go see him teach in person: Cultivate ease when you are young, because it’s the one thing that won’t desert you when the rest of your gags are gone.

POTUS is at the Shubert Theatre.

Mr. Saturday Night is at the Nederlander Theatre.

POTUS and Mr. Saturday Night Mine Laughs Behind the Scenes