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A CurtainUp Review
Top Girls

Why are we all so miserable?.—Marlene pondering her dinner guests' the tales illustrating the high cost of self empowerment.
Top Girls
Elizabeth Marvell as Marlene (Photo: Joan Marcus)
I last saw what is considered to be Caryl Churchill's break-through play, Top Girls. Since its much heralded debut, Churchill has become reigning queen of anti-establishment literary politicking. It's no wonder that at a time when even Americans who often stay away from the polls have been politicized by a costly and unpopular war and a plunging economy that New Yorkers have been offered not one but two Churchill plays: The latest in her current highly condensed style, the 45-minute Drunk Enough to Say I Love You (see link) and the first Broadway mounting of her much longer 1982 Top Girls. Both pull off a Churchillian coup in that they span whole eras of history.

While I didn't see Top Girls in 1982, I did see it at the Williamstown Theatre Festival three years ago. Like the MTC revival, it had a stellar all female cast and an extra feminist spin in that it was directed by one of our premier women directors, Jo Bonney. While James McDonald's staging is more visually expansive than the rather spare one at Williamstown, the big question overarching any production of Top Girls is whether it lives up to its glossy resume (a place in the National Theatre's Millennium list of the hundred best plays of the twentieth century, an Obie Award in 1983, runner-up for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize). The answer is yes for the daring of the concept and no in terms of audience appeal.

Top Girls has a lot to say but its way of making its point is more fun to talk about than to watch. Churchill is out to challenge you and make you think, not to entertain you. And no matter how fine the actors are, and the Biltmore cast is very fine indeed, the play is too talky and sluggish dramatically to have anything close to mass appeal.

The famous first scene is still a colorful and often hilarious feminist twist of Lewis Caroll's Madhatter Tea Party. The Madhatter here is Marlene (Elizabeth Marvel), a 1980s glass ceiling crasher who is hosting a surreal dinner party to celebrate her move to the top of the corporate ladder as the manager of the employment agency from which the play takes its title.

Marlene's guests arrive from the annals of history, literature and art to toast and recall their pain and triumphs in a male-dominated world. The historic diners include Isabella Bird (Marisa Tomei), a Victorian woman who kept a photographic record of her world-wide travels; Lady Nijo, (Jennifer Ikeda) a medieval Japanese concubine who became a wandering Buddhist nun; Pope Joan (Martha Plimpton), who disguised herself as a man throughout her four-year reign which ended when she became inconveniently pregnant. There's also Dull Gret (Ana Reeder) who steps out of a Brueghel painting and Patient Griselda (Mary Catherine Garrison), the overly obedient wife from one of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales who is the last to arrive.

My companion, a well-read, smart young woman, admitted to feeling at sea about the identity of some of these characters and it would hardly be a case of talking down to the audience to include some biographical notes in the program or, given the common use of projections, somehow implement the guests' entries with some clarifying images.

To intensify the surreal atmosphere the dialogue often overlaps so that funny and colorful as this party is, close attention must be paid in order to catch what's being said, especially since the women not only often talk across rather than to each other but do so in a variety of accents. While the actors have admirably mastered these accents (especially Ms. Tomei), the acoustics of the beautiful Biltmore theater can be a problem and hearing everything was a strain even in Row E seats. Though MacDonald has given each guest an identity establishing entrance and enough solo talk to stand out during the cross-conversations, it didn't keep a fair number of people at the performance I attended from snoozing, or others from walking out at intermission (thus missing the actors' metamorphoses into other characters in the more reality based second act).

Where Top Girls falls short of living up to its "great play" reputation is as a groundbreaker in terms of its thematic muscle. While the issues relating to the high cost of breaking down the barriers of male power in the home and the work place have not disappeared, women's work and marital issues have been much discussed and dramatized. The most up-to-date chapter in the women having it all saga focuses on those who give up their hard-won places in the circle of power to be stay-at-home moms. On the other hand, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whom Ms. Churchill uses as a metaphorical presence hovering over her "top girls" may be gone, but the widening gap between the haves and have-nots attributed to her administration is more relevant than ever. The women getting killed alongside the men in Iraq are part of a volunteer army recruited from a segment of the population for whom military service has been the only means for obtaining a higher education.

Although Ms. Churchill continues to write plays that tend to be polemical and challenging, her recent workds have been much more tightly structured. Often clocking in at little more than an hour, these more concise works underscore and bold face the excessive talkiness of Top Girls.

The seven best reasons to see Top Girls, either again or for the first time, are the topnotch actors. Elizabeth Marvel, the only cast member not playing several roles, is the nominal star. Her Marlene is every bit the self-confident business executive, yet there's an undercurrent that paves the way for her final return to the dull home that she escaped but where her sister Joyce (Tomei) has remained to mother Angie (Plimpton), the child Marlene abandoned for a more rewarding life. Marvel is more affecting here than as the ever smiling hostess of the first act's dinner party; the same is true for Plimpton who is more memorable as the mentally challenged, love starved Angie than as the Pope. Tomei shines in all three of her roles.

The rest of the cast prove themselves up to the tour-de-force opportunities their various roles afford them. Jennifer Ikeda's Lady Nijo and Anna Reeder's Dull Gret transition with more than a little irony into smartly dressed young career girls in the the Top Girl office scene. Mary Beth Hurt, the silent waitress at the dinner party skillfully portrays one of the job applicants.

Tom Pye's set serves the production well. Laura Bauer has fun with the dinner party costumes. Ultimately, however, with so many of this play's arguments by now overly familiar, even these superior performers can't always sustain one's interest in the characters they portray. The fun of Churchill's cacophony of voices is definitely not easy listening.

Drunk Enough to Say I Love You
Far Away
A Number
The Skriker

By Caryl Churchill
Directed by James Macdonald
Cast: Mary Catherine Garrison (Patient Griselda/Kit/Jeanine/Shona), Mary Beth Hurt (Waitress/Louise), Jennifer Ikeda (Lady Nijo/Win), Elizabeth Marvel (Marlene), Martha Plimpton (Pope Joan/Angie), Ana Reeder (Dull Gret/Nell) and Marisa Tomei (Isabella Bird/Joyce/Mrs. Kidd).
Sets by Tom Pye
Costumes by Laura Bauer
Lighting by Christopher Akerlind
Sound by Darron L West
Original music by Matthew Herbert
Production stage manager: Martha Donaldson
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
From 4/15/08; opening 5/07/08; closing 6/29/08.
Tickets from $46.50-$91.50.
Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM. Sunday at 7 PM. Matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 PM. From 5/13: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM. Matinees Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2 PM.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on May 9th
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