The bizarre, bloody and basely funny satire called “The Secretaries” has a contemporary rough edge, even though it was first produced 22 years ago. It’s about the secretaries at Cooney Lumber Mill and their willingness to get along by going along. They become sisters in a conspiracy that makes them giddy with excitement – every 29 days they kill a lumberjack and make off with his jacket as a trophy. After all, says one of them, the jackets are better made than women’s clothes.
And the lumberjacks wonder why they can’t go 29 days without an industrial accident.
“The Secretaries,” which is getting a good run for its outrageous sensibility as a part of this year’s “GayFest!” of theater in Center City, is often a hoot under the direction of Jack Tamburri, who stages it as part melodrama, part cartoonish characterization and part spoof. But he never imposes anything approaching reality, and that’s the production’s triumph. The message, and I’m not sure it’s supposed to be a message, comes directly from its goofiness: Some wolves will do anything to become part of the pack. In this case, the wolves are women and the pack is composed of secretaries.
And what secretaries they are! You can’t just walk into Cooney Lumber Mill and get a secretarial job because you type well – a desk-job there is a considered a major award. So when nice-girl Patty Johnson (Emily Schuman) lands one, she’s careful to be constantly appreciative. Her co-workers grow stranger and stranger, but at first they seem to Patty to have the typical quirks of office colleagues. Dawn (Amber Orion, who also plays Patty’s lumberjack boyfriend) is tough and boyish, Ashley (Jennifer MacMillan) is jealous and insincere and Peaches (Katherine Perry) is a slightly oversized bit of a misfit. And their boss (Sarah Schol), who is the private secretary of the real boss, is an imposing authoritarian who insists on loyalty, compliments, and a even contract that forbids sex of any type.
“The Secretaries,” is written by a group of women who call themselves The Five Lesbian Brothers, and include Lisa Kron, this year’s Tony Award winner for both the book and lyrics to “Fun Home,” itself the winner of best musical. As you might guess from a play by The Five Lesbian Brothers, it has gay content that’s suggestive and more, but the gay stuff is surprisingly more down to earth than the raw, loopy plot and the production’s general characterizations. Much of “The Secretaries” is over-the-top and all of it is too long – the 100-minute play, performed without an intermission, begins to flag in the middle and doesn’t seem to want to move on for, say, 20 minutes.
But its five energetic and talented actresses carry it through – each of them builds a specific character both likable and not, and they manage the constructions with care – everything in place and well-delivered. Like the good secretaries they play.
“The Secretaries,” from Quince Productions’ fifth annual “GayFest!,” runs through August 22 at Studio X, 13th and Reed Streets, in conjunction with other festival shows, quinceproductions.com.