New York City Theater
Biltmore Theatre (Broadway), Manhattan
Caryl Churchill has long been a top woman British playwright, given over to constant theatrical experimentation that plays with time and format. Even today, her 25-year-old piece “Top Girls” has a fresh, provocative quality—as played out in this Broadway revival. While written at the height of the Margaret Thatcher era, “Top Girls,” with its strong feminist them, continues to be relevant.
In some respects, the play works well, but falters in other respects. The first act is given over to a dinner party. (How often the dining room table dominates our modern dramas!) But this is Caryl Churchill, and it’s no ordinary dinner party. Marlene, a successful career woman, is host to an unusual assortment of women which include a female Pope, a Victorian wife, a Chinese concubine, a woman from the “Canterbury Tales.”
This initial scene—though an earnest effort to spell out woman’s place in history—falters dramatically. What are they garbling about, and what is the point? But the play gathers strength in subsequent scenes as Marlene’s own story unfolds. It deals with her early bleak years in Suffolk, her escape to the city, and her ultimate professional success as an executive of the Top Girls Employment Agency. But the conflicts—within her family and within her workplace—create high-powered tension. Has she made the right choices—leaving behind parents, sister, “niece”? The story becomes gripping, though one questions Churchill’s format. Why is the last scene a flashback to an earlier time—and what ultimately happens to Marlene, her sister, and the teen-age daughter? The story ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.
Nonetheless, in this Broadway revival, director James MacDonald is blessed with a gifted cast, topped by Elizabeth Marvel (as Marlene). Even more exciting is Martha Plimpton, who plays both the rebellious teen-ager Angie and a dignified Pope. In fact, all the players (except Marvel) get the chance to show their skills by playing two or three characters. Mary Beth Hurt is sensational as Angie’s sulky little friend Louise. The all-woman cast of seven also includes Mary Catherine Garrison, Jennifer Ikeda, Ana Reeder, and Marisa Tomei.
May 10, 2008