Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - May 7, 2008
Top Girls by Caryl Churchill. Directed by James MacDonald. Scenic design by Tom Pye. Costume design by Laura Bauer. Lighting design by Christopher Akerlind. Sound design by Darron L. West. Original music by Matthew Herbert. Hair & wig design by Paul Huntley. Dialect Consultant Elizabeth Smith. Cast: Mary Catherine, Garrison Mary, Beth Hurt, Jennifer Ikeda, Elizabeth Marvel, Martha Plimpton, Ana Reeder, Marisa Tomei.
But Churchill's symbolic strip tease is anything but a gentle look at femininity in the modern age. It's an acidic challenge to the prevailing wisdom of 1982, the year it premiered, that suggested to her the goal of getting ahead at any cost came with prices too high to pay. With conservatism taking root on both sides of the Atlantic, with Ronald Reagan on these shores and Margaret Thatcher on those, it's not hard to see why Churchill considered this message vital.
Is it today? You need look no further than our headlines, crammed with news bites big and small about Hillary Clinton's presidential bid, to find your answer. So Top Girls's Broadway bow - at the Biltmore, in a production directed by James MacDonald - was perhaps inevitable. And without Elizabeth Marvel and Martha Plimpton on hand to leap across cultural and generational barriers for our benefit, it might well have been inviable, too.
As Marlene, the satisfied single willing to sacrifice her humdrum Suffolk upbringing for a high-power position at London's Top Girls employment agency, Marvel mixes mannishness and cunning into a terrifying portrait of a selfish life spiraling out of control. Plimpton mines Angie, the niece with whom Marlene has an extremely close relationship, for every nugget of the personal and emotional confliction that define a decade of girls being sent all the wrong signals.
Caught between the two is Marlene's sister Joyce (Marisa Tomei), whose difficulty in raising Angie and coping with her sister's aggressive anomie gives way in Act III to a brutal confrontation between the old world and the new. Tomei, underpowered elsewhere, holds her own beautifully as the real-world force trying to stabilize the increasingly intertwined Marlene and Angie.
Both the third act and the second - which is set in Joyce's home and at Top Girls, and shows the callous course Marlene is sailing - help make a tough-sell show in this country seem like the latest must-have gadget. Churchill's shattering vision of female identity neither abuses its politics as her newer Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? did earlier this season at The Public or vivifies them the way her 1979 hit Cloud Nine managed. But it becomes a caressingly violent condemnation of the capitalistic power structure and those who fall into it but don't try to claw out. Even if you disagree with the underlying politics, Marvel, Plimpton, and Tomei make credible cases for the disintegrative effects of unchecked ambition on these women's intricately connected lives.
The same, however, cannot be said of the rest of the company. The remaining five actresses don't sufficiently polish the highly reflective surface they need to present to achieve the full, society-scratching impact. It's hardly rare for subsidiary characters to serve as comparative guideposts for a play's central figure, but rarely does it happen this openly - or with greater potential to devastate the audience or diminish the drama.
All seven women collide in the first act, imagined as a night of dining and carousing to celebrate Marlene's promotion to executive. But in truth, it's a last supper in which the sell-out at last severs her ties with humanity, and is reminded of what she's lost - and where she's going - by the company she keeps. In this case, it's a variety of literary and historical figures who struggled with just Marlene's issues of motherhood and career.
Ideally, the different facets each represents reveal themselves as the performers assume related roles at Marlene's work, and demonstrate how dehumanized these top-dwelling girls are. But only Plimpton links her characters' secret-fueled existences, though Angie is mostly bottom-scraping. Tomei nicely negotiates her shift between Joyce and a wife pleading to Marlene for her husband's dignity, but can't add Isabella into the mix. The likes of Ikeda's chatty Win, Garrison's unproven job applicants, and others are unfocused enough to detract from the story they're meant to support.
MacDonald hasn't imposed the necessary whip-cracking pacing to keep the first act in line, and his diffuse staging and Tom Pye's ghostly and ghastly scrim-heavy set do the subsequent acts no favors. But Laura Bauer's costumes sap their wearers of attractiveness while still impressing themselves - a fine, but important, line to walk for a play in which outfits go a long way to making the unmade woman.
More important to Churchill than clothes are priorities - and she never lets you forget where she believes her characters' should lie. As long as Marvel, Plimpton, and Tomei are sparring over these issues, it's hard to argue with Churchill's stance. When they step back, it's much harder not to.