The Secretaries

By The Five Lesbian Brothers

Directed by Bonnie Metzgar

Produced by About Face Theatre

Playing at Theater Wit, Chicago

Horror Too Tepid to be Campy

Take the premise of an all-female cult that butchers men, and fill it up with camp, gore, and crude humor, and you should have something that’s funny, scary, or at least, offensive. But no, About Face Theatre’s Chicago premiere production The Secretaries is simply dull, and plods along for two hours without any emotional resonance. Perhaps the 1994 play, written by New York’s Five Lesbian Brothers, (whose most famous member, Lisa Kron, went on to write the book of Fun Home,) is simply dated. Or perhaps the cast, under the direction of Bonnie Metzgar, simply didn’t find the drive the authors brought to their characters in the original run. Whatever the reason, The Secretaries is fatally low on energy, and doesn’t even deliver that much blood.

Susan (Kelli Simpkins), Ashley (Meghan Reardon), Dawn (Lauren Sivak), Patty (Erin Barlow) and Peaches (Sadieh Rifai). Photos by Michael Brosilow.

The story depicts Patty Johnson (Erin Barlow), a young woman with an excellent education in secretarial duties, who has just been hired as a receptionist for Cooney Lumber Mill in Big Bone, Oregon. It’s the dream job of every secretary to be a part of the tight-knit community headed by Susan Curtis (Kelli Simpkins), a legendary office manager. The other secretaries, Ashley (Meghan Reardon), Peaches (Sadieh Rifai), and Dawn (Lauren Sivak), excitedly welcome Patty, and tell her that if she really wants to be a member of the team, she’ll soon have her own lumberjack jacket. It’s dangerous work though; the company never goes more than thirty days without an accident, and women are unsafe around the lumberjacks. However, Patty meets one, Buzz (Sivak), who’s a decent guy, and they hit it off.

Meghan Reardon, Erin Barlow, Lauren Sivak and Sadieh Rifai

Though the women are all infatuated with Susan, the supervisor is desperately lonely, and quickly begins sexually harassing Patty and demanding her romantic attention as part of team-building. This arouses the jealousy of Ashley, who had previously been Susan’s favorite pet, as well as Dawn, who is openly a lesbian and has a crush on Patty as well, but they all remain loyal to Susan. She controls them with an iron grip, in fact, collecting their used tampons, forbidding them from having sex, and hinting at a more sinister loyalty test to be revealed later. But she also defends Peaches from the company owner, who constantly threatens to fire her for being overweight, although Susan’s insistence that the women live on an all SlimQuick diet isn’t exactly healthy, either. Patty is a little creeped out, but also intrigued, and enjoys the sense of power that comes from angering Ashley.

Susan (Kelli Simpkins), Peaches (Sadieh Rifai), Ashley (Meghan Reardon), Dawn (Lauren Sivak) and Patty (Erin Barlow)

From hearing it described, you might think the sight of women brutally hazing each other until they finally murder a man and declare themselves a sisterhood, only to start the cycle over again, is some sort of statement. However, other than Simpkins’s Dracula-like performance as Susan Curtis, the characters are not grounded enough for us to have any sense of stakes or consequences. Patty tolerates absurd amounts of abuse, despite reacting at some points, but not others, with realistic astonishment and indignation. But the actresses explicitly tell us at the end of the play that there’s no real point to it, and their performances are nowhere near campy-enough to match their lines or scripted actions. It seems likely that The Secretaries was originally meant to satirize depictions of lesbians in trashy horror movies and paperbacks, but such things have faded so much in the public conscious that the whole story just comes across as random and inexplicable. And they don’t even use the chainsaw.

Not Recommended

Jacob Davis

3jacob.davis@gmail.com

Reviewed May 15, 2016

For more information, see The Secretaries’ page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $35, with discounts for students and seniors; to order, call 773-975-8150 or visit aboutfacetheatre.org. Performances are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm through June 12. Running time is two hours with no intermission.