If there’s anything at all to be learned from the experience of sitting through “The Secretaries” — and that’s an awfully big if — it might be gleaned from the closing lines of the play (talk about saving the “best” for last), something to the effect that the allegedly campy satire is “purely cautionary,” as opposed to a “moral story.” Consider this review, then, a cautionary tale with a moral: as in, there’s no such thing as bad publicity (or so I’ve always heard).
Credited to a writing team known as the Five Lesbian Brothers and guest-directed by 7 Stages artistic director Heidi S. Howard, the less said about this lowly, discombobulated Out Front Theatre production the better. For one thing, this is a family newspaper and much of the so-called “plot” particulars could be too unsuitable for detailing here. Suffice it to say, the action takes place at a lumber mill in fictional Big Bone, Oregon, near a neighboring town called Beaver Lick, and let’s leave it at that for now.
For another thing, there are a lot competent talents involved with the show, who shouldn’t necessarily be blamed for its overwhelmingly unsavory detriments. Howard, for instance, directed one of my recent favorites (7 Stages’ “The Revolutionists”). And her cast includes Rachel Frawley (so good in the Weird Sisters’ “Space Girl”), Isake Akanke (from Synchronicity’s excellent “Eclipsed”) and Jennifer Alice Acker (from several Horizon musicals).
Rounding out the five-member cast are Casey Gardner and Hannah-Rose Broom. While I’m not familiar with any of their previous theater work (unless the former is the same Casey Gardner who takes a lot of production photos for various companies around town), no doubt they’re very dedicated artists, too.
So is Out Front artistic director Paul Conroy, for that matter. By forming the company a few years ago to serve the LGBT community, his intentions are unassailable. But, especially next to something like the finely crafted “Porcelain” from earlier this season, how does “The Secretaries” really serve that community, by trading in the most tasteless situations or downright grotesque stereotypes imaginable? Although it would be different if the show was genuinely funny, it isn’t remotely that.
Broom plays the show’s narrator, Patty, the newest hire in the secretarial pool at the Cooney Lumber Mill, where the male employees have a way of mysteriously disappearing, right around the time their plaid jackets start turning up on the backs of the secretaries in the office. The only man we actually see speaks in a prerecorded voice and wears a mask resembling Leatherface from the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” movies.
Patty gradually uncovers her co-workers to be members of a murderous, diet-obsessed cult dominated by their steely, sexually harassing supervisor (Frawley, channeling such haughty and melodramatic ’50s stars as Anne Baxter and Eleanor Parker, or maybe chilly Piper Laurie from her days on the original “Twin Peaks,” what with the whole lumber mill connection).
“Odd little customs” of the cult include signing a celibacy agreement with the boss lady, making her periodic Xerox copies of their private parts and participating in scantily clad slumber parties around her vibrating bed. Simulated sex scenes, knock-down, drag-out brawls and considerable bloodshed ensue — to which the perky Patty eventually chirps, “I guess I have a lot to learn about lesbians.”
And I guess I have nothing else to add.
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