Manhattan Theatre Club’s impressive revival of Caryl Churchill’s 1982 groundbreaking play “Top Girls” marks the British playwright’s Broadway debut, 25 years after the play was first presented to much acclaim downtown at the Public Theater. Directed by another Brit, James Macdonald, the well acted production is a bold reminder of just how wonderfully good Churchill’s early work really is and of her consummate skill even before she pared down her powerful writing style. “Top Girls,” although over talkative, is an adroit examination of the legacy of feminism, both the accomplishments and the sacrifices inherent in the struggle to succeed in a man’s world.
The evening begins boldly with an inventive surreal dinner party set in a London restaurant during Margaret Thatcher’s reign as Prime Minister. Marlene (Elizabeth Marvel) is celebrating her recent promotion to general manager at the Top Girls temp agency with her real and imagined women guests from the worlds of art, literature and history. Those assembled are a colorful group that includes Isabella Bird (Marisa Tomei), a Victorian explorer; Lady Ninjo (Jennifer Ikeda), a Buddhist nun traveling Japan on foot, who was once a 13th century Emperor’s courtesan; Pope Joan (Martha Plimpton), who lived life disguised as man, only to be stoned to death when she gave birth to a baby girl during a ceremonial procession; an abused Patient Griselda (Mary Catherine Garrison), an obedient wife depicted in a sad story from Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales; and a dim witted Dull Gret (Ana Reeder), a warrior in an apron and armor, who led a group of women to battle the demons of Hell in a Brueghel painting, Dulle Griet.
In forcefull overlapping dialogue Churchill has the women boastfully recount their particular challenges as they rose to powerful positions. She weaves in a provocative array of themes and ideas. But what stands out significantly from the stories within the context of the next two acts, are the losses, especially the emotional toll from the children and the people left behind making it profoundly clear that courage and compromise are necessary components, if women want power in a male dominated world.
The next two acts are very telling in the accumulation of detail as we follow Marlene, the play’s central character, first to the Top Girl employment agency and then to the home and child she abandoned in her sister Joyce’s (Tomei) care. We get to see Marlene in action cementing her new position with the other women at the agency, while they interview prospective applicants like an uneasy Louise (Mary Beth Hurt), coaching them how to get ahead. And then we see the working class roots Marlene left behind, where she plays aunt to her own 16 year old daughter Angie (Plimpton). The contrast in Marlene, the energetic go getter, and Joyce, her trapped resentful sister, are painfully evident.
The fully committed performances are convincing portraits by an outstanding ensemble of award winning actors in theater and film. With the exception of Marvel they all take on more than one role. To single out any one of them is almost a disservice to the superb collaborative effort.
Bravo to MTC for the courageous choice of bringing Caryl Churchill’s unique take on women and power to Broadway. Churchill makes it clear, life is risky, and we are defined by our choices. Reminding us, that not to choose, is itself a choice. This is certainly not theater for the laid back subscriber. Here is dense theater to make you think and question beautifully served by an accomplished cast of women at the top of their game.
By Gordin & Christiano
261 West 47 Street
Between Broadway and Eighth Avenue
1 212 239-6200