Occupational Hazards

It’s inevitable that some of the more revered works in the theatrical canon will be performed more than lesser-known ones. What theater company that can get its hand on Edward Albee or Sam Shepard work can resist the urge to perform it? It is a blessing, then, when a theater troupe decides to breathe life into a more forgotten work. Such is the case with Project: Theater’s’s current production of The Five Lesbian Brothers’ barbed mid-1990s work, The Secretaries at the 78th Street Theatre LAB. The Five Lesbian Brothers remain a rather well-kept secret from the last twenty years of underground independent theater. Comprised of Maureen Angelos, Babs Davy, Dominique Dibbell, Peg Healey and Lisa Kron (she is perhaps the group’s most famous alumni, having scored a Tony nomination for Well), this Obie-winning group emerged in 1989 at the WOW Café.

Hopefully they will remain a secret no more. The Five Lesbian Brothers’ plays subvert such strong ideas as politics and sexism in a darkly comic structure. Both subject and style have been embraced wholeheartedly by director Joe Jung and the rest of Project: Theater’s immensely talented ensemble.

Patty Johnson (Jessi Blue Gormezano) is new to the secretarial pool at Cooney Lumber Mill. While quickly promoted by enigmatic and intimidating boss Susan Curtis (Tara Franklin, creating a perfect ice queen), Patty finds it takes a bit more work to fit in with her three long-standing administrative colleagues, women who seem to know everything about each other’s secrets, and, as Patty quickly learns, hers as well.

One of the great joys of this production of Secretaries is watching this trio both enact and defy automaton stereotypes. Dawn (Karis Danish), Peaches (Laura Dillman) and Ashley (Jenny Schutzman) may address the audience wide-eyed and speak in unison, and they all may subsist on a diet consisting solely of strawberry diet shakes, but each woman has her own freak flag, and the actresses wave them high.

It’s hard not to laugh, for example, at Danish’s mannerisms, some deliberate, some a bit more subtle, but all sustained throughout the show, as Dawn harbors a hysterical same-sex crush on Patty, one that circumvents Susan’s odd requirement of celibacy among her charges. And who can resist laughing as Schutzman, hair apparently drowned in an Aquanet bath so that she resembles something out of a Whitesnake video, makes her character increasingly duplicitous? Meanwhile, it’s worth the wait as Dillman makes Peaches’ deep-seeded insecurities rise to the surface.

Jung moves Secretaries along at a great pace, with scene changes that are done nimbly without calling attention to themselves, and a great attention to detail (including the song choices playing in the background of the secretaries’ local watering hole). Gormezano perfectly embodies the Madonna-whore complex: she has Patty walk a fine line of immersing herself in some of her cohorts’ behavior, including submitting her tampons to Susan for review (yes, the play is edgy, but it works best when its humor is the most pointed), while carrying on an interoffice romance with lumberjack Buzz (a hilarious Brian Frank).

Eventually, Patty catches on to the fact that her colleagues’ hijinks are more than merely wacky, that they might, in fact, involve a more sinister plan. This comes as no surprise to the audience, however, and, if there is any disappointing element with a show as supremely well-executed as Secretaries, the fault can be traced to its source material. The show may be a suspense comedy, but as irreverent as the Five Lesbian Brothers’ work is, it is lacking in the suspense department. There is no great thrill or twist as the show approaches its climax.

Yes, this is a satire about what the women warriors in a male-dominated working world can be driven to, but it never quite reveals what drives them in the first place. One catches on to what the secretaries have up their starched sleeves early on, but there is no reveal as to what motivates them. Nonetheless, this particular production is great fun, and its excellent cast deserves a lot of credit for keeping the ride a fun one.

And I’d be lying if I said this isn’t a show that somehow gets under your skin: I bought a strawberry shake on my way home.

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