Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Prime Churchill

Theater Review - Broadway
Top Girls
Written by Caryl Churchill
Directed by James MacDonald
Starring Mary Catherine Garrison, Mary Beth Hurt, Jennifer Ikeda, Elizabeth Marvel, Martha Plimpton, Ana Reeder, Marisa Tomei

Performances from April 15, 2008
Biltmore Theater
261 West 47th Street

Elizabeth Marvel
(photo: Joan Marcus)
Unlike other current Broadway productions of straight plays, such as Boeing-Boeing, The Country Girl, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and Thurgood, the Manhattan Theatre Club's revival of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls has it all: first-rate acting and direction; political, social, and psychological depth; and the vision of a playwright at the height of her considerable powers.

Written in 1982, after Margaret Thatcher became England’s first female Prime Minister, Top Girls takes stock of the state of feminism. In Churchill's view, Thatcher’s ascendancy negatively influenced how women saw themselves, as careerism won out over a nurturing family life. Of course, this theme is never stated so baldly; Churchill astutely develops it through the travails of her heroine, Marlene.

Churchill shows her supreme artistry in the opening act, which takes place in a London restaurant at a dinner Marlene hosts to celebrate her promotion to manager of the “Top Girls” employment agency. The invitees are a quintet of “top girls” out of the pages of history and myth: the infamous (and apocryphal) ninth-century Pope Joan; 19th century traveler Isabella Bird; 13th century courtesan Lady Nijo; Patient Griselda, a character from Boccaccio, Petrarch and Chaucer; and Dull Gret, famed subject of a Brueghel painting. In this initially mystifying but strikingly dramatic scene, Churchill shows how these women–like Marlene–overcame long odds, only to run into frustrations that mitigated their triumphs.

After that dream-like opening act, Acts II and III are more conventionally realized; yet Churchill ends her play with a confrontation between Marlene and her sister Joyce–who raised Marlene’s daughter Angie as her own while Marlene climbed the corporate ladder –that’s as powerful an image of naked ambition and enduring loneliness as anything seen onstage in ages. Through cleverly overlapping dialogue, strategically-placed non sequiturs and a tough-minded glimpse at the private lives of modern women, Churchill bluntly conveys her righteous anger over how feminism has evolved–or devolved. And the passing of a quarter-century hasn’t blunted the force of Churchill’s rage.

Director James MacDonald–a recent Churchill regular–stages Top Girls as elegantly as it deserves. And a half-dozen talented actresses play several roles with varied (and authentic) accents: Marisa Tomei, Mary Catherine Garrison, Jennifer Ikeda, Mary Beth Hurt, Ana Reeder and a particularly affecting Martha Plimpton are superb individually and together. As Marlene, Elizabeth Marvel might lack the magnetism that would earmark this successful Thatcherite executive, but she is an accomplished actress who puts across Marlene’s moments of public triumph and personal pain with uncommon subtlety.

Compare the sublimity of Top Girls with Churchill’s most recent play to appear here, Drunk Enough to Say I Love You, a shrill, empty anti-Bush, anti-Blair polemic that sidesteps everything that made the earlier play so superior. Although her art has sadly declined, Top Girls reminds us of a more satisfying time, when Caryl Churchill was both entertaining and enlightening.

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