Mary Catherine Garrison
Mary Beth Hurt
On an otherwise bare stage, a table with six settings awaits a unique group of guests, an inviting glow urging an audience to take their seats at a remarkable theatrical feast. Marlene has just beat out a male colleague to become managing director at the Top Girls Employment Agency in London, and she’s about to conjure five women from history and legend to join her in celebration.
Even as a successful woman, Marlene fails at finding female companionship to the extent that she needs to invent her own. The guests in attendance are a legendary female pope, a traveling Buddhist concubine-cum-nun, the warrior subject of a Breughel painting, Scottish traveler Isabella Bird, and the ever-patient Griselda from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. They are all women who made it to the top, whether by defiance or obedience, and each paid a terrible price, sacrificing their children in one way or another on their way to the apex.
Caryl Churchill’s first act is one of the most difficult scenes in modern drama to master, featuring overlapping conversations, varied dialects, and plenty of food for thought. Though it’s a bit tough to chew, it’s worth the effort; the results here are ambrosial to say the least. Spotty accents and occasionally less-than-crisp diction should be met with forgiveness, as the purpose of the scene is not for individual strands of conversation to shine but for an overall dynamic to emerge. These women, embodied by these six performers (plus the waitress, bringing the total to seven), have all climbed their varied rungs, but there’s a common understanding at the table of the trials of womanhood.
When British playwright Churchill wrote Top Girls in 1982, during the age of Thatcherism and Reaganomics, I expect that, even with all of its specific references to the politics of the time, the playwright must have known that the themes of her play would remain painfully relevant even into the next century. With these figures of the past holding such a prominent place at the table, Marlene seems to fit as just another cog in a cycle that seems bound to continue indefinitely.
Manhattan Theatre Club’s timely revival of Churchill’s play comes – coincidentally – just as former first lady Hillary Clinton winds down her epic attempt at becoming the first top girl in U.S. history, and it provides a complex and intelligent companion to the debate over the lingering sexism in society today. How much is it important that the leaders of tomorrow be women, the play asks, if those in question don’t have women’s best interests at heart? Can women be both happy and successful? And should they have to don pants and act like men to get where they want to be?
Marlene’s fanciful dinner party gives way to second and third acts that are a grittier and more socialistic examination of these themes. Churchill explores the sacrifices of a top girl at the office and at home, spinning a web of familial deception and class differences as complicated as any of Hillary’s own as Marlene’s sister Joyce and Joyce’s daughter Angie enter the picture. It turns out that Marlene has far more in common with her dinner guests than is originally apparent, and her rise to the top hasn’t been as pleasant as she could have hoped.
Minimalist scenic design from Tom Pye, whose simple sets for productions as varied as Deborah Warner’s recent Happy Days and David Leveaux’s 2004 revival of Fiddler on the Roof have been so unassumingly successful, allows for effective transitions between Joyce’s house in Suffolk, England with its streaky, darkening sky and the hectic Top Girls agency in London, complete with a bleary, busy office-front scrim and authentic 80s furniture and computers. They also provide important cues as to the prominence of class, Joyce’s house full of comfortable clutter that seems the absolute antithesis of the clean, structured urban office that Marlene calls home away from home.
Job placement interview scenes taking place at the Top Girls Employment Agency add a further dimension to the proceedings and introduce new perspectives into the conversation regarding women in the workplace. Interviewee Louise has spent twenty years in middle management, constantly bumping up against the glass ceiling whilst her male counterparts ascend to the top, and Shona is a young woman who feels pressure to lie in order to get her foot in the door. The comical twist to these scenes allows the play to sidestep cliche and avoid the dramatic pitfalls that sometimes arise in tackling head-on such divisive issues.
With each of the seven actors in the cast doubling or tripling roles, this production presents a powerhouse of New York acting, especially in the case of three standouts. As young Angie and Pope Joan, Martha Plimpton, who shone so brightly in various roles in the unwieldy three-part epic The Coast of Utopia last season, once again proves her versatility. Her roles here couldn’t be more different; Joan is brilliant leader and Angie is vulnerable shirker, but Plimpton embodies each with a peerlessly naked conviction. Her portrayal of Angie is particularly fiery. Only fifteen, Angie is still beginning life, not yet sure where she fits in the world, and Plimpton gives her an appropriately wide-eyed charm without veering toward childish caricature.
Also impressive is Marisa Tomei, whose portrayal of Isabella Bird in the dinner party scene affords her little opportunity to shine but whose Joyce embodies a haggard conviction, full of vigor despite her working class, workaday existence. And at the center of it all is Elizabeth Marvel as modern day top girl Marlene. Marvel exudes haughty vulnerability. With a flip of her bob hairdo, she swithces from a defiant social climber to a wounded woman with more than her fair share of regrets.
For a play about the alienation of women on their way to the top, one that focuses so prominently on their fears and regrets, Top Girls features a remarkably cohesive cast. Churchill varies her tone tremendously throughout and allows for an ensemble cast to build to an impressive finish. As the climactic final scene, a fight between Joyce and Marlene, screeches to a rocky halt, it becomes clear what Caryl Churchill thinks about the future of women’s rights. There are no easy answers to be found here; Churchill has made sure of that. Despite the climbs that these top girls have made, their mighty sacrifices in tow, their futures are never certain. Angie sums it all up in her final cries: “Frightening.”