The Five Lesbian Brothers have built promisingly on the anarchic new lesbian theater strains forged in the ’80s by Holly Hughes, Split Britches and other WOW Cafe Theater alumni. Funny, pointed and disciplined, their work seems poised for crossover success. But “The Secretaries” doesn’t look like that breakthrough effort; this third full-length leaves plenty of room for improvement in the touring months prior to a fall gig slated with the New York Theater Workshop.
The collectively penned script is set in Big Bone, Ore., a company town dominated by the Cooney Lumber Mill. Cooney secretarial standards are tough, demanding knowledge of several languages and all manner of weight, dress and nail-length restrictions. Rather than rebelling, the women in the pool obey as if ardent followers of a cult. Which, in fact, they are. We know from the start the secretaries’ big secret: Once a month they kill a male lumberjack, claiming his jacket as a trophy.
But it takes nearly the entire 100 minutes for new hireling Patty (Dominique Dibbell) to catch on. The interim is occupied by tensions between the Slimfast-gulping big-haired women, most revolving around office manager Susan (Peg Healy). Part B-movie siren, part sadistic warden, Susan keeps them all in a state of quavering obedience with erotic underpinnings — though only Dawn (Maureen Angelos) confesses to being “that way.”
Despite its showy plot hook, “The Secretaries” is less a satire on male-bashing paranoia than a twisted, sometimes cruel examination of society’s impossible demands on the female image. Plump Peaches (Lisa Kron), anorexic Ashley (Babs Davy) and sadistic Susan are all self-worth casualties in one way or another. But the connection between these pressures and the group’s lumberjack dismemberings is sketched too loosely even for farce.
Director Kate Stafford’s pacing could use some punching up, and the troupe characterizations (the deliciously campy Healy aside) likewise seem tentative. Susan Young’s costumes are dead-on, but Amy Shock’s set design looks cheaper than it has to. Mostly it’s the uneven script, however, that needs reworking before “The Secretaries” can realize its full provocative potential.