Top Girls

Women beware women in Caryl Churchill's twisty, dark feminist classic.

FEMALE TROUBLE Executive Marvel is ready to fight.

FEMALE TROUBLE Executive Marvel is ready to fight.

In February 2006, I wrote a review of Rabbit Hole that morphed into a bilious broadside against the Manhattan Theatre Club’s bourgeois, subscriber-friendly programming, which David Lindsay-Abaire’s play exemplified. Never mind that it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize: Rabbit Hole is the sort of technically competent but theatrically bankrupt kudzu that chokes our nonprofit stages. Lo and behold, two years on, MTC now has three shows on the boards—From Up Here and The Four of Us on West 55th Street, and now Top Girls at the Biltmore—and I thoroughly enjoyed all of them. What gives?

Not knowing how the organization runs, I can only guess that pressure from various parties resulted in gutsier choices. How else to explain Top Girls? First, MTC picks this thorny Caryl Churchill play, which switches stylistic gears in each act, from transhistorical fantasia to gut-wrenching naturalism. Far from a feel-good feminist romp, Churchill offers a pessimistic, socialist view of female empowerment. Then, it brings in hard-nosed British director James Macdonald, who cut his teeth on Sarah Kane and Christopher Shinn at London’s Royal Court Theatre. (He recently staged Churchill’s Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? at the Public and Dying City at Lincoln Center Theater, but this is his Broadway debut.) Finally, the cast is headed by Elizabeth Marvel as gung-ho Thatcherite businesswoman Marlene. Downtowners revere Marvel as a brilliant, fearless performer, but she’s no celebrity. Is MTC trying to shed deadwood subscribers or has it simply developed taste?

Whatever the motivation, Top Girls is a triumphal end to the 2007–08 season. The 1982 play bristles with sharp wit and pulsates with provocative ideas; this expert production, thrillingly performed, does the masterpiece full justice. Top Girls’ three acts form a dense matrix of resonant themes about women and power, in both distant and not-distant history. Even 26 years after its premiere, it remains a marvelously compact study of what women forsake for advancement. Churchill has said that the work was inspired by conversations with American feminists. In her view, the U.S. brand of me-too feminism is not a repudiation of patriarchal capitalism, it’s just a handmaiden of it. The play dazzlingly portrays the loss of social cohesion with individual upward mobility. Marlene epitomizes this paradox; years ago, she left her unwanted child, Angie (Martha Plimpton), in the care of her working-class sister, Joyce (Marisa Tomei). Now Angie is a severely disturbed teen, Marlene is sliding into alcoholism and Joyce is a bitter, depressed, adoptive single mom.

The bravura Act I gets things off to a bizarre start. It’s a long scene set in a restaurant where Marlene is celebrating her recent promotion at the Top Girls Employment Agency. Marlene’s guests are a surreal bunch: women from myth and history who have achieved great things. They include Victorian explorer Isabella Bird (also Tomei), 13th-century Japanese concubine Lady Nijo (Jennifer Ikeda), 9th-century cross-dressed Pope Joan (also Plimpton), fairy-tale princess Patient Griselda (Mary Catherine Garrison) and Breugel hell-harrower Dull Gret (Ana Reeder). This dynamite sequence with overlapping dialogue and jokes keeping pace with tragic anecdotes—meticulously conducted by Macdonald—is something of a flashy distraction: Churchill isn’t just celebrating female achievement.

In the next act, she brings us inside the Top Girls agency, where we track Marlene and her female coworkers in action, coaching women young and old on how to land a “high-flying” job and get ahead. These curt, cutting scenes are satirical gems, snapshots of desperate women with sharp teeth flashing under lipstick smiles. Angie arrives unexpectedly at Marlene’s office, in time to see her favorite “aunt” tell a male coworker’s disapproving wife to piss off. The final segment takes place in Joyce’s house in Suffolk, England, and it’s the heartbreaking culmination of Churchill’s concerns about power, family, politics and individual ethics. The final word of the play, frightening, neatly sums up how Churchill viewed the coming decade.

What can one say about this amazing cast except that—with the possible exception of August: Osage County—it is the finest ensemble in a straight play right now? Tom Pye’s austere, stylized sets also deserve a word. The designer creates not-strictly-representational interiors, offices and houses built from semitransparent white fabric. He names the Act I restaurant—in a sign we read in reverse—CASA BIANCA. Hmm. White House? In this election year, Pye, Macdonald and the actors give an encrypted nod to Hillary. Perhaps they’re suggesting that she who could be America’s “top girl” is struggling in a corrupt system where having power doesn’t necessarily mean implementing change.

Biltmore Theatre. By Caryl Churchill. Dir. James Macdonald. With ensemble cast. 2hrs 40mins. One intermission.