What would Lea DeLaria be like as president? “Impeachable,” the comedy legend says, without missing a beat.
I can’t see her asking a favor of the president of Ukraine or whipping up an extremist mob to storm the Capitol, but if we’re harkening back to the days when impeachment could be instigated by a good, old-fashioned sex scandal then “impeachable” she might be. “Whenever anybody says, ‘You should go into politics,’ it’s like ‘I have three-ways and talk about [them] on stage,” she adds.
Just to be clear, DeLaria is (sadly) not considering a run for the presidency, or any elected office that I’m aware of. We’re talking about her new play, “POTUS: Or Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying To Keep Him Alive,” which opened for a limited 14-week run on Broadway at the Shubert Theater in April.
Lea DeLaria’s rarely at a loss for words, but on the topic of “POTUS” she’s uncharacteristically restrained. “I don’t like to spoil anything,” she tells GO. But what she can say is that the play is “fucking hilarious.” Based on a script by Selina Filinger – making her Broadway debut – and directed by five-time Tony winner Susan Stroman, “POTUS” revolves around a cadre of seven talented women who attempt to save a clueless American President from a PR nightmare of his own making: one involving a particular four-letter word used to describe a certain part of the female anatomy.
The actual POTUS in question never appears onstage. Instead, the show belongs entirely to DeLaria and her six female co-stars, Julie White, Rachel Dratch, Vanessa Williams, Lili Cooper, Juliana Hough, and Suzy Nakamura, as they frantically deal with the comically-escalating scandals of the man they’re trying to save.
“POTUS” is a rarity in the world of plays: a female-centric farce written and directed by a woman and starring only women. In the male-centric world of farce, where female characters often come scantily clad (think “Noises Off”), it’s groundbreaking, and also refreshing, to see women literally running the show. To borrow a phrase from DeLaria, “it’s historic.”
And funny, too. “Everyone is so funny. We spend so much time laughing backstage at everything. And it’s just the craziest – .” She stops herself before she can spoil too much.
But she can share a few details about Bernadette, the character she plays, who is sister to the unseen POTUS. DeLaria can tell me that Bernadette is a lesbian, one who wears a retrofit Nike tee shirt with the eponymous logo replaced with the word ‘Dyke.’ “She’s that kind of dyke.” We also learn, over the course of the play, that she’s been previously involved with another character, Jean, the President’s press secretary, played by Nakamura. “There’s a big dyke twist going on in this.”
DeLaria first got involved with POTUS five years ago, when Filinger’s script was in a playwrights’ workshop in Princeton. At the time, she was filming “Orange is the New Black,” and had no interest in making the trip to New Jersey. But her manager thought otherwise. He sent her the script and by page 10, she was hooked. “I called him [her manager] back and I said, ‘If this play moves to New York and I’m not in it I will fucking fire you,’” she recalls. Her decision wasn’t made entirely on a whim. Her last Broadway appearance was in the (year) revival of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and while she’s wanted to return to the stage since, the right project just hadn’t come along. Until Fillinger’s script.
Bernadette is “completely written for me,” she says. “There’s a lot of me in her: the irreverence that she has, the ‘doesn’t-give-a-fuck’ attitude.’ She’ll do whatever she needs to do to get it done. Very, very Lea.”
Not to mention that the play is hilarious. But the humor isn’t just for laughs, although it garners plenty of those. Viewers will likely recognize the irony of watching seven capable women scrambling to save a far less capable man who, despite his failings, has ascended to a position of power and authority that has been barred to them. Yet still they scramble to save him – after he uses, of all things, the “c” word – his ever-ready defenders.
“It’s very surreptitiously feminist,” DeLaria says. “You don’t even realize you’re watching something ‘feminist’ because you’re laughing so hard. But the reality is, everything it’s saying – it’s pertinent, it’s baffling, given what’s going on today.”
The unseen POTUS in question is a composite drawn from aspects of his many real-life counterparts. In an interview with the New York Times, writer Fillinger said that while she was inspired to write “POTUS” during the Trump years, the script was inspired by the women in his orbit, as well as those who were in the orbits of other powerful men. How do they access power in a male-dominated world? What must they do to keep that power?
For DeLaria, the message is an indictment of patriarchy, and how the system works to keep women below the so-called glass ceiling. In other words, it’s the type of message DeLaria has been delivering throughout her entire career, using humor to address serious issues, from gay rights to abortion rights; and, like DeLaria, the play uses humor to include the audience in on the joke. “We want people to hear it,” she says. “How do we make them hear it? We make them fucking laugh.”
As for the “c” word? It’s no accident that this word is used to set in motion a series of zany events that get us to laugh at the patriarchy (in fact, it’s the first word heard in the play). Its usage, Fillinger has said, asks us to consider what makes certain words, especially those associated with the female genitalia, so taboo, and whether or not such words can be reclaimed. While this is a point worthy of a much larger debate, DeLaria herself is very much in the reclamation camp: so much so that in 2014 she started #totescunt as a way to generate positive connotations for the word.
“I want to reclaim the word as something positive. So I used the word ‘cunt’ all the time, but only in a positive way,” she says, adding that in comedy, “language is the most important thing. And use of these words – you’ve got to start asking yourself, ‘Why are certain words considered dirtier than others?’”
“POTUS” asks us to consider such questions, even as we laugh at the increasingly frantic capers its seven heroines find themselves enmeshed within. From what DeLaria says, the play challenges patriarchy offstage, from the collaborative nature of the production to the camaraderie formed by cast and crew. “When we were creating and it was in the rehearsal process, Stro [director Susan Stroman] would go, ‘Okay, how does that feel? Does anybody have any ideas?’,” she recalls. “I can’t tell you I’ve ever heard that uttered from a male director my entire life. Ever. And we’re all very strong and very comically-inclined women. So we had opinions and often our opinions would be incorporated into what it was we were doing.”
The end result is “a labor of love from all of us.”
So who in the cast of comically-inclined women makes it hard for DeLaria to say in character on stage when the laughs start? “Julie White is just a comedic genius,” she says, referring to her co-star who plays the President’s loyal and put-upon chief of staff. “Julie’s character on a scale of 1 to 10 starts at about 11 and keeps going.”
Also in the ranks of comedy assassins is “Saturday Night Live” alum Rachel Dratch, who plays the President’s secretary (both Dratch and White were recently nominated for Tonys for their respective roles). At one point in the show, she’s required to do – something on stage, the details of which DeLaria won’t divulge except to say that it’s “the most improbable, bizarre thing I’ve ever seen. And it’s so funny.”
Talking to DeLaria, you get the sense that these funny ladies have as much of a blast offstage as they do on. Our entire conversation is riddled with these moments, from anecdotes involving seemingly-impossible comedic feats to mishaps with latex gloves. “[I]t’s just this crazy, wild, beautiful ride,” she says.
Best of all? “I’m the only rooster in this henhouse. And I am having a ball.”
“POTUS: Or Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying To Keep Him Alive” is now playing for a limited engagement at the Shubert Theater. You can buy tickets here.