In the Richmond Triangle Players' darkly comic "The Secretaries," the typing pool is swimming with sharks. 

Twisted Sisters

Sir Anthony Hopkins in "Silence of the Lambs." Sharon Stone in "Basic Instinct." Richard Hatch in "Survivor." Add one more performance to this list of devilishly charming but murderously evil characterizations: Jen Meharg in "The Secretaries," the first offering this season from the Richmond Triangle Players (RTP). As a predatory, vicious and manipulative office manager, the strikingly attractive actress provides the pitch-black heart at the center of this sinister comedy. If you can make it through the play without feeling queasy, "The Secretaries" will have you laughing down dark corridors of your soul that you've never visited before.

Meharg plays Susan Curtis, the ice-maiden manager of a pool of secretaries who grovel obsequiously at her feet. They all work at the Cooney Saw Mill, the only gainful employment available in Big Bone, Ore. While Susan is the most twisted of these sisters, she is supported by a cast of equally peculiar pals. Dawn (Polly Griffin) is a lascivious lesbian apparently always on the prowl. The gun-toting office busybody, Ashley (Kristen Swanson), seems ready to go postal any minute. And poor good-natured Peaches (Donna Coghill) gets lost and left out, the only full-figured member of the nearly anorexic crew.

Into this estrogen-laden pool jumps newcomer Patti (Michele Morris), desperate to fit in but soon wary of the police-statelike policies that Susan has in place. She realizes that the giddy girl talk hides a mysterious maliciousness, and it's not long before she knows why the sawmill can't seem to go 29 days without a fatal accident.

Though this is all played with campy breeziness, there is some awesome acting going on in the midst of the mayhem. Meharg grabs the most attention with her whipsaw changes between seductive sweetheart and fire-spitting tyrant. But as the neophyte Patti, Morris has the subtler acting challenge, modulating in stages from reluctance to outrage to eagerness. Griffin makes for an adequate leering lesbian, but is actually more genuine in her dual role as Buzz, Patti's doomed boyfriend. And while Swanson chews the scenery as her character turns flamboyantly envious of Patti, Coghill is forced to make her impressions in small moments. Her dejection at being passed over in a scene of female bonding is comically sad.

As written by a little-known quintet called the Five Lesbian Brothers, "The Secretaries" shows catty office politics blown monstrously out of proportion. Director Amy Berlin wisely keeps the show's farcical elements rooted in the relationships between the five main characters. She also cleverly incorporates scene changes into the action so the pace never flags. Steve Austin's bold sound design is as full-bodied as John Knapp's scenic design is efficient. All together, Berlin creates an atmosphere that's charged with emotion while remaining oddly antiseptic, reminiscent of the old "Twin Peaks" TV show.

Just like that show, "The Secretaries" has plenty of flinch-inducing moments, including a too-realistic collection of used tampons and a blood-drenched finale. But "Twin Peaks" never had a villainess who was as alluring and as vile as Susan Curtis. If you think you can take the heat, I dare you to walk into her office.


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