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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
Two of the 2004-05 Broadway theater season's biggest and most applauded hits were old plays made new again, Reginald Rose's TV drama Ten Angry Men and David Mamet's Glengarry, Glen Ross. Both were notable for their large all male casts.
Williamstown Theatre has balanced the scales by bringing back Caryl Churchill's 1982 break-through play, Top Girls. To direct the 7-member all female cast playing sixteen roles, there's one of the theater's "top girl" directors Jo Bonney. To add an extra feminist spin, the large crew of intern deckhands or intra-scene prop movers are all women.
As with Ten Angry Men and Glengarry, Glen Ross, the big question about this production is does it live up to its praise and prize wreathed history (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 and no?
The play's famous first scene is still a colorful and often hilarious feminist twist of Lewis Caroll's Madhatter Tea Party. The Madhatter here is Marlene (Jessica Hecht), a 1980s glass ceiling crasher who is hosting a surreal dinner party to celebrate her move to the top of the corporate ladder. Her 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, a Victorian woman who kept a photographic record of her world-wide travels; Lady Nijo, a medieval Japanese concubine who became a wandering Buddhist nun; Pope Joan, who disguised herself as a man throughout her four-year reign whih ended when she became inconveniently pregnant. Dull Gret is the dinner guest stepping out of a Brueghel painting and Patient Griselda, the last to arrive, is the overly obedient wife from one of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
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. Though Ms. Bonney has orchestrated the party so that each guest is given an entrance that establishes her identity and the character dominating a particular cross-conversation stands out, it wasn't enough to keep some at the Saturday afternoon performance I attended from snoozing or others from walking out at intermission (thus missing the actors' terrific metamorphoses into other characters in the clarifying, 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 designed less to entertain than to seed post curtain discussion, her most recent works (e.g. Far Away and A Number) have been much more tightly structured. Clocking in at little more than an hour, these powerful and more concise works underscore the excessive talkiness of Top Girls. This, despite Ms. Bonney's astute direction which, besides cranking up the fun of the dinner party and downplaying the confusion, smoothly connects the surreal opening scene with the realistic follow-up sections that solidify the parallels between Marlene and her guests's reasons for being unable to savor their achievements.
The seven best reasons to see WTF's Top Girls are the topnotch actors. Jessica Hecht, 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 to her brittlenesss that paves the way for her final return to the dull home that she escaped but where her sister Joyce (Becky Ann Baker) has remained to mother Angie (Laura Heisler), the child Marlene abandoned for a more rewarding life. Baker is very affecting both as the angry working class sister and the desperate wife of the man whose career and ego fall victim to Marlene's rise as managing director of the Top Girl agency. She also masters a Scottish accent to amusingly portray the Victorian woman who traveled all over the world.
The rest of the cast is equally up to the tour-de-force opportunities their various roles afford them. Reiko Aylesworth's and Elizabeth Reaser's transitions from concubine and super-submissive medieval wife to smartly dressed young career girls adds a special irony to the Top Girl office scene which also provides Ellen McLaughlin, Pope Joan turned into an uptight middle-aged job-changer, with some of the play's best lines. Brienin Bryant, the silent waitress at the dinner party skillfully portrays the younger but smarter friend of Laura Heisler's semi-retarded Angie (an irony rich follow up to her Dull Gret).
David Zinn's set serves the production adequately if not outstandingly. The scrim from behind which each of the dinner guest enters works well but the overarching tree image serves no particular purpose. The numerous deckhands seem to be part of each production primarily to give the WTF interns a chance to be on stage. Ilona Somogyi's costumes are as colorful and on the mark as the women wearing them.
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 so well. And the fun of Churchill's cacophony of voices is definitely not easy listening.