Plaid Flannel Carnage

Lumberjacks get clear cut in CPT's grossly funny Secretaries.

Secretary Patty (Liz Conway) is only too happy to be - of assistance.
Secretary Patty (Liz Conway) is only too happy to be of assistance.
It's no revelation that secretaries, usually women, frequently lead lives of not-so-quiet desperation. Indeed, these office minions have been righteously bitching about their lot in corporate life for many years now. But usually, their dissatisfaction with repetitious, brain-destroying work and harassment from co-workers is presented with good-old-gal humor (e.g. , the movie 9 to 5) and with a golden light of redemption at the end of their carpal tunnel.

Leave it to the Five Lesbian Brothers, a group of taboo-shattering female playwrights, to take a more outrageous view of steno sisters. Their play The Secretaries, now at Cleveland Public Theatre, is a view of office politics as seen through the prism of a sadomasochistic fem-dom cult, whose members are addicted to Slim-Fast shakes, fetish wardrobes, and ritual murder on a rigid monthly timetable. While the piece aims at scathing satire, but misses -- due to a consistent lack of focus for the ridicule -- there are several outrageously sexual sequences, a couple of gross-out moments, slick staging devices, and three particularly effective performances -- all of which equal a stunning if intermittently queasy evening of theater.

The women in question are secretaries at the Cooney Lumber Mill in Big Bone, Oregon, an incestuous company town where everyone must use the Cooney Gold Card to shop at the Big Bone Mall. Inside the secretarial pool, the pressure is intense for Dawn, Ashley (Sheffia Randall), and Peaches (Denise Astorino) to conform and please the boss, the imperiously elegant Ms. Curtis. Small wonder, since the gals admit through a chant in the first few minutes of the one-act that "We are secretaries and we do things secretarial/And once a month, we kill a guy and cut him up for burial." The motive for this mayhem against their lumberjack co-workers seems to be a combination of synchronized PMS and an abiding fury at the fact that men's clothes are made better than women's, yet cost half as much. (The woman who lures the next guy to his death gets to keep his plaid hunting jacket.)

Into this petri dish of estrogen-fueled homicide comes slim and blonde Patty, a new receptionist who is quickly promoted and wins the title "Secretary of the Month." Although admitted lesbian Dawn is smitten with her, sultry Ms. Curtis has the inside track and puts the moves on naive Patty, stroking her shoulder muscles and then slipping her hand inside Patty's dress to fondle her breast. Among the scenes you're not likely to see in any other play is the office meeting in which the women take turns extracting their bloody tampons and depositing them in a plastic bag they give to Ms. Curtis, for a reason that remains murky. Clearly the playwrights (Maureen Angelos, Babs Davy, Dominique Dibbell, Peg Healey, and Lisa Kron) are out to shred conventional stereotypes and PC niceties regarding women's issues in general and girl-on-girl passions in particular.

As the days count down to the next Kill Night, the gals try to bond by playing Twister in their scanties at a slumber party, presided over by Ms. Curtis. But there is more infighting than fellowship: The day after Patty signs the group's celibacy agreement (the purpose of which is never fully explained), she's playing hide-the-lumber in a discreet corner of the loading dock with Buzz from the pulping plant. And when Patty reluctantly agrees to accompany Dawn to a local motel "to relax," Dawn repeatedly tries to make out with her until the new hire, a hetero, decides to join in with gusto (Lesbian Wet Dream #3). This is one of the funniest scenes, with Meg Chamberlain as dyke Dawn feigning cunnilingus with intensity and vibrating herself into a self-induced orgasm on the "Magic Fingers" pulsating bed.

In the role of Ms. Curtis, smoldering Alison Hernan lets her hair down as a despotic vixen, turning even a simple line such as "Isn't she terrific?" into a lascivious growl. When she appears in the concluding scene in a PVC bodice and knee-high, stiletto-heeled red boots, fire alarms may be set off for blocks. Liz Conway is also excellent as Patty, morphing from a sweet midwest innocent to a chainsaw-wielding goddess of vengeance (look out, Buzz).

This production, as directed by Randy Rollison with set designs by Trad A. Burns, features a number of arresting images, such as the rolling typing stations equipped with their own up-lights that frequently illuminate the women on a darkened stage, like an OfficeMax version of Dawn of the Dead. Even in a clutter of jokes that are either obvious (the lesbian bar is in Beaver Lick) or psychosexually strained (Peaches begs Patty to slap her face frequently, to remind her to avoid solid foods), the show keeps its footing for most of its 100 minutes. Strong praise indeed, since the script seems intent on smashing all the cultural china in sight.