May 10, 2008

"Top Girls" is Top-Notch

I was in my early 30s when I first saw the British playwright Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls during its brief American run at the Public Theatre back in 1983. I was proud to call myself a feminist and off to a promising start at the job where I would eventually scale the ranks and become, well, one of its top girls. But at the time, I was struggling to figure out whether I should be investing more in my professional career or my personal life. In short, I should have been an ideal candidate for Churchill’s play about what it costs women to succeed.

But all I remember about that production now is how baffled I was by the play’s famous first act in which a woman named Marlene celebrates a big job promotion with a dinner party whose other guests are historical and fictional women—
Dull Gret, the armored figure who leads an army of women to fight the devils in hell in a 16th century Dutch painting; Lady Nijo, a 13th century courtesan to the Emperor of Japan who later became a Buddhist nun; Isabella Bird, a 19th century Scottish adventurer; Patient Griselda, the obedient wife in Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”; and Pope Joan, who some believe disguised herself as a man and ruled from the throne of St. Peter for two years in the 9th century—all of whom broke gender barriers in one way or another.

The surrealism of that first act, with its frequently overlapping dialog as the women talk about their accomplishments and sacrifices, was so confounding that I left at intermission.
So I was a little hesitant about seeing the Manhattan Theatre Club’s new revival of Top Girls that opened at The Biltmore Theatre this week. But the play is not only a classic of the modern theatrical canon but one of the few written by a woman. And the actors in the current all-female cast—including Martha Plimpton, Marisa Tomei, Mary Beth Hurt and the downtown powerhouse Elizabeth Marvel—are all at the top of their game.
“You’re older now, you might see it differently,” my husband K tried to reassure me.

So I screwed up my courage and went to see it. I don't know if age has anything to do with it, but K turned out to be right about my seeing the play differently. I still think of myself as a feminist but I’m now at the other end of my career, there’s no question that K comes first in my life, and this time around, I found Top Girls not only a mental workout, but an emotional one as well. The play was originally written as a critique of the greed-is-good ethos that thrived when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister in England and Ronald Reagan President of the U.S. but its warnings about unbridled ambition, particularly in how it affects women, still resonate today.

I confess that I’m still trying to sort out that first act (was the dinner all in Marlene’s mind? why those particular women? which top girls would I put on my invite list?) But the more naturalistic second and third acts that follow Marlene into her office at the Top Girls Employment Agency and on a visit to the working class family she left behind in her scramble to succeed hit home. I found myself nodding in recognition at similar experiences I’d had—including having someone suggest I turn down a job because one of the men I was working with would be disappointed that he hadn’t gotten it while a woman had.

All of the actors, except Marvel who brings telling nuance to the central role of Marlene, play multiple roles. They’re all superb (these are the kind of hugely talented women who can't find meaningful roles in contemporary movies—yet another reason to be thankful for the theater) but if the Tony nominators, who are meeting this weekend to determine who should compete for this year’s awards, don’t single Hurt out for a Best Supporting Actress nod for the standout scene in which she portrays a woman finally confronting a lifetime of futile sacrifice, then they might as well suspend that category.

Still, the play isn’t for everyone. Several people at the performance I attended left after the first act. And even many of those who stayed were grumbling at the end. (The lousy acoustics at the Biltmore don't help—I always seem to have a problem hearing plays there.) A video team from the New York Times recorded reactions as the audience left the theater (click here to see and hear some of their comments). I sidestepped the Times interview but I’m glad that I stayed this time. Making a place for yourself at the Top Girls table isn’t easy but it’s the most soul-nourishing night I’ve had at the theater this season.

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