Have times changed, or have I? When I first encountered Caryl Churchill's "Top Girls" in 1982, I was fascinated by its relentless take on feminism - specifically, the glass ceiling and how to break it.
Now, as the Manhattan Theater Club brought it back last night - with a top-flight cast featuring Marisa Tomei and Martha Plimpton - I was engrossed by Churchill's technical command of the theater and her willingness to take risks.
It's the early 1980s in Margaret Thatcher's Britain, and Marlene (Elizabeth Marvel) has just been promoted to head an employment agency called Top Girls.
Now she's giving a celebratory lunch for a few friends at a chic London restaurant. The first guest, a Scotswoman, is dressed a little eccentrically, but it's not until an ornately clad Japanese woman arrives that we realize something strange is afoot.
Indeed. Five women from various places and periods - including the mysterious ninth century Pope Joan (Plimpton), a character from Chaucer, another from a painting by Brueghel - assemble over dinner, merrily chatting about women . . . and, of course, men.
This rather Shavian scene is clever, intriguing and deliberately confusing. For in the play's realistic last two acts, Churchill swims into clearly political waters - and drowns Marlene in the process.
Marlene, you see, has scaled the slimy pole of success at the expense of others, including her own rather dim daughter, Angie (Plimpton again), who's been handed over to Marlene's sister Joyce to raise in rural England. In fact, Angie's been led to believe Marlene is her aunt.
The play promotes feminism by offering its mirror image - a sort of "Planet of the Apes" concept - so Marlene behaves as callously as any male overseer.
Even more disquieting is that the women working in the employment agency spend their time coaching other women on how to appeal to potential male employers.
What price feminism now? Yet by this tortuous inversion, Churchill makes one seriously consider the female/male equation more closely than would a simple propagandist screed.
The play would still be improved by cutting and has severe problems in structure - not least the last act taking place a year before the other two.
James Macdonald's staging is beautifully nuanced, especially in its careful development of Marlene, with Marvel giving a shaded performance that covers every base.
All the acting has a perfect ensemble feel to it. Plimpton shines in her dual roles as a dry Pope Joan and a touching Angie, and Tomei is splendid in three roles.
It's a provocative play, one that - 26 years later - makes one think and think again.
It seems safe to say that no New York restaurant, not even Michael’s or the Four Seasons, has seen a power meal to match the one that so exhilaratingly begins Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls,” which opened last night in a well-acted revival at the Biltmore Theater.
Nor can Barbara Walters, Tina Brown or any of their high-rolling sisterhood claim to have assembled a gathering of women like those who share rich foods and richer confidences in this imperfect but important play from 1982. That’s because most Rolodexes don’t have contact numbers for a dauntless world traveler from the Victorian era, a hell-storming peasant warrior out of a Flemish Renaissance painting, a 13th-century Japanese courtesan turned Buddhist nun, a too-dutiful wife from Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” or a martyred female pope from the Middle Ages.
But it also seems safe to say that any contemporary woman of power will find she has much in common with these wine-gulping, centuries-spanning figures, embodied with zeal and finesse by a starry cast that features Elizabeth Marvel, Marisa Tomei and Martha Plimpton. That includes a sad and sobering awareness of the lower depths that lurk at the top for those who have worked, fought and married their way up. As Marlene (Ms. Marvel), the party’s 20th-century hostess, asks, “Why are we all so miserable?”
Watching that consciousness surface in Ms. Churchill’s fantasy dinner in a London restaurant, where Marlene is celebrating her promotion to managing director of an employment agency, makes the first act of “Top Girls” not only an inspired gimmick but also one of the most resonant theatrical set pieces of the past 50 years. And it has been done full justice here by a cast rounded out by Mary Catherine Garrison, Mary Beth Hurt, Jennifer Ikeda and Ana Reeder, directed with intelligence and sensitivity by James Macdonald.
That nothing else in “Top Girls” equals its virtuosic opening scene is no fault of this revival, a Manhattan Theater Club production. Even 25 years ago, when the play opened at the Public Theater in New York, it was evident that Ms. Churchill had saved her best for first.
This brilliant, adventurous dramatist, though, was not yet practicing the poetic economy evident in later works like “Far Away” and “A Number.” In “Top Girls” she makes the implicit explicit. The themes explored with such stylistic vigor in the first act are parsed and laid bare in the more naturalistic second and third.
In these, set in the dawn of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, Marlene is seen in both the unforgiving world of affluence in which she now lives and the equally unforgiving one of poverty she escaped from. (In its published form “Top Girls” is two acts; here it has been redivided into three.)
These sections are often intellectually engaging. It’s fun catching the echoes of ideas about feminine sacrifice, restlessness and moral compromise established in the fantasy sequence. But eventually these later scenes start to feel like predigested food for thought. And there are moments of confrontation that remind you of old-fashioned weepies, albeit spiked with a socialist conscience. (Of course a lot of British dramatists, including David Hare, were writing that way in the Thatcher age.)
It’s the commitment and enthusiasm of Mr. Macdonald’s cast that continue to hold your attention. How often, after all, do you get to watch this many actresses at this level of talent sharing a single stage, a meaty subject and the chance to flex underused theatrical muscles?
Aside from Ms. Marvel, who provides a magnetic center as the ambition-driven Marlene, everyone has more than one part. And it’s a delight to see how each settles so comfortably into different complex roles without signaling how clever she is.
The casting alone in the first act is cause for joy. Ms. Plimpton, with her thundering alto and concrete presence, was made for the adamantine (and possibly apocryphal) Pope Joan, who confidently ruled the Vatican in the ninth century until she gave birth to a child. (The witty, mixed-period costumes are by Laura Bauer.)
Ms. Tomei, an actress of effortless-seeming nuance, brings fine layers of guilt and determination to the role of the British world traveler Isabella Bird. Ms. Garrison’s girlishness with a sting feeds perfectly into Chaucer’s Patient Griselda, the obedient victim of some of the sickest spousal abuse in literary history.
I’m equally hard-pressed to think of better choices for Dull Gret, the laconic peasant warrior, and Lady Nijo, a Japanese emperor’s concubine, than Ms. Reeder and Ms. Ikeda, lively counterpoints in crudeness and delicacy. And it’s truly thrilling to observe all these actresses navigate the tricky waters of Ms. Churchill’s overlapping dialogue.
They’re just as good, if less entertainingly flashy, in the succeeding scenes in which they portray, among other things, the proud-to-be-tough employment agents and their job-seeking interviewees. Ms. Hurt, who appears memorably as the stern waitress in the first act, has a pitch-perfect scene in the second as a middle-aged office manager, newly awakened to anger she has suppressed for years.
The third act, in which Marlene returns to the working-class neighborhood of her youth, is the most conventional. In it Marlene and her sister, Joyce (Ms. Tomei), drink, confront, confess and argue over the care and feeding of Angie, Joyce’s simple-minded teenage daughter (a totally credible Ms. Plimpton). This all too often has the air of a politicized episode of “Coronation Street,” the long-running British soap opera.
Then again, without that concluding act, we would miss the silent vision of Ms. Tomei’s Joyce, alone onstage, as her eyes register the long stretch of her inevitable hardscrabble future. Or the opportunity to watch Ms. Marvel’s Marlene get drunk again and follow a snaking path through sentimentality, guilt, bluster, anger and animal fear.
It’s fear that Ms. Churchill leaves us with. When you look back, you appreciate the eerie appropriateness of Tom Pye’s diaphanous sets, which float amid the black maw of a bare stage. That blackness, seen or unseen, is always in Ms. Churchill’s plays, whether she’s writing about Communist Romania (in “Mad Forest”), environmental destruction (“The Skriker”) or Anglo-American relations (in “Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?,” staged by Mr. Macdonald this season).
It’s this abiding darkness that gives “Top Girls” an affecting charge that transcends its schematic side. As always Ms. Churchill is merciless in pointing out that everything in this life is scary, including the landscape of roads taken and not taken that every woman faces, no matter what century she’s from.
It's a mark of the spiky brilliance of "Top Girls" that regardless of having previously seen or read the 1982 play, deciphering its cryptographic mosaic of narrative, themes, structure and style is still a bracing challenge. Much has changed in the quarter-century since Caryl Churchill took stock of the legacy of feminism in this blistering examination of what women had fought for and attained, and the price they paid to succeed in a male-dominated world. But while the play remains inextricably keyed into the zeitgeist of Thatcher's Britain, its originality is undiminished in MTC's incisively acted Broadway production.
While plenty of evidence of professional inequities still exists, gender politics in most workplaces is no longer such a contentious issue. Indeed, what's most interesting about having a woman running for the top job in the country is that the loudest voice calling attention to any perceived stigma has been the candidate's own. But in many ways the expectations for women wanting to have it all now seem even higher, requiring them not just to balance career and family but to do it without body fat or frown lines.
"Frightening," is how Churchill, in the play's chilling final word, summarizes the outlook of a girl ill-equipped for self-reliance. And while that bleak pronouncement might seem sweepingly dramatic, "Top Girls" does make a trenchant case that courage and compromise have always been necessary for women wanting to measure up against men, and that making progress usually requires adoption of dog-eat-dog male values.
The plus ca change aspect is signaled historically by the playwright in the still-audacious opening act, which riffs on Judy Chicago's landmark 1970s feminist art installation, "The Dinner Party." To celebrate her promotion to general manager at the Top Girls Employment Agency, Marlene (Elizabeth Marvel, in asymmetrical Swing Out Sister bob and chunky power jewelry) invites an eclectic group of women from art, literature and history to dinner.
Among them are Victorian explorer Isabella Bird (Marisa Tomei); Lady Nijo (Jennifer Ikeda), a 13th-century Japanese courtesan-turned-Buddhist nun; Pope Joan (Martha Plimpton), believed to have headed the Vatican for a brief stint in the ninth century while disguised as a man; Patient Griselda (Mary Catherine Garrison), an obedient wife depicted in Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales"; and Dull Gret (Ana Reeder), the warrior who led her fellow village women to battle the demons of Hell in Brueghel's painting.
Toasting Marlene's promotion, the women chatter away over the top of each other in excitedly self-absorbed non-sequiturs, sharing their experiences of male injustice and female achievement, usually with rueful sacrifice. It's like the History channel version of "The View."
Director James Macdonald doesn't shrink from the uncompromising nature of this virtuoso femme-fantasia; his acknowledgement that the scene's overlapping dialogue and encyclopedic references represent a difficult point of entry is entirely fitting for the work of a dramatist who, like her countrymen Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and Michael Frayn, consistently refuses to talk down to her audience.
In the two non-chronological acts that follow, we see the working-class Suffolk roots Marlene has fled and now regards with disdain. Even the inkling of affection she feels for Angie (Plimpton), the adoring, dim-bulb daughter being raised as her niece, can't soften her assessment. "She's a bit thick. She's a bit funny," says Marlene of the 15-year-old girl. "She's not going to make it."
When Angie turns up unexpectedly in London, Marlene's flustered mortification at the messy overlap of her past into her present is the first sign of Churchill's shift from intellectual observation into more emotionally needling terrain.
Marvel is superb at outlining the steely edges that have enabled her to snatch the office throne from a senior male colleague while showing a glimmer of the fear that keeps her looking over her shoulder. Her clipped tones slip down the class scale when talking to Angie and then click efficiently back into place as she resumes executive mode. When she barks, "Could you please piss off?" at Tomei, playing the wife of the man Marlene leapfrogged for promotion, Marvel displays the muscle that has allowed her to eliminate warmth and compassion from her thinking.
Much of act two is devoted to showing, with caustic wit, the deadening ways in which Marlene and her female colleagues (Reeder and Ikeda) have acquired professional momentum by emulating male coercion and giving secondary importance to personal life. The hasty judgments, dismissive categorizations and patronizing indifference of the interview scenes in which the top girls scrutinize prospective clients are especially revealing.
Churchill then adjusts her microscope from the sprawling context of the first act and the wry detachment of the second to the intimate focus of the sorrowful third and final act, in which Marlene visits her resentful sister and Angie's surrogate mother, Joyce (Tomei).
Predating the rest of the action by a year, the scene is weakened by the blunt didacticism in Marlene's endorsement of the methods and aims of Thatcher and Reagan, and Joyce's furious rejection of them. The political backgrounding in that time is amply evident as subtext. But despite Tomei's difficulty with the East Anglia accent, both actresses bring penetrating insights to the sisters' personal and political conflicts. Joyce's straight-talking unpretentiousness and her refusal of any sentimental bond are oddly moving, as is the stifled humanity beneath Marlene's iron lady mask.
In his previous work in New York, including Churchill's "A Number" and "Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?," Macdonald favored an austere aesthetic, creating a claustrophobic isolation that allowed every word to resonate. Here the Brit director and designer Tom Pye take their cue unsuccessfully from the more verbose text, written in the period before Churchill started paring down her dialogue into elliptical fragments.
Dominated by a motif of crisp white, tented fabric that seems to suggest the purity, softness and transparency of a traditional woman's touch, the fussy design concept is unclear and untidy; even on the relatively compact Biltmore stage, the elements appear swamped and disharmonious. The play and production doubtless would work better in a smaller space. And if changing the name of the opening-scene restaurant from the original Prima Donna to Casa Bianca is an attempt to force a connection to American politics, it's a clumsy one.
Laura Bauer's costumes are more effective, from the playful period detail of the historical fantasy to the sexless early '80s fashions. There are also subtle correlations between past and present, such as Ikeda's ornate kimono as Lady Nijo and her busy-print office dress, or Gret's apron and armor with Reeder's ghastly ethno-chic tabard and boots.
Any reservations about Macdonald's visual scheme are countered by his razor-sharp work with the tremendous cast, all of them aside from Marvel in multiple roles.
The eccentric comedy of the dinner party allows each woman to balance humor and pathos, notably Tomei's rugged but refined Scottish adventurer, Reeder's fearless barbarian and Plimpton's pompous Joan, who hilariously recounts her unexpected experience of childbirth during a papal procession. Plimpton also is heartbreaking as scrappy but emotionally fragile Angie, whose plight appears without hope, while Mary Beth Hurt has one haunting scene as an older businesswoman who has played by men's rules only to be taken for granted.