nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
May 8, 2008
In the brief moment when Elizabeth Marvel, as Marlene, touches the table of what will be the dinner party of her dreams, a number of sensations—hunger, bewilderment, arrival—pass across her face. And then the guests begin to arrive: Victorian traveler and writer Isabella Bird; Lady Nijo, the 13th century Buddhist nun; Dull Gret, the eponymous subject of a painting by Breughel; the possibly-fictitious Pope Joan, who reigned for a few years circa 850 A.D.; and Patient Griselda, a character depicted in stories by Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Chaucer. All are gathered to celebrate Marlene's promotion to managing director of the Top Girls employment agency. The congenial (if self-centered) conversation of these women, whose achievements are as unique as their setbacks and sufferings are common, is one of the most extraordinary overtures in dramatic literature. The latter two acts of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls—comparatively naturalistic, and no less brilliant—are haunted by these role models, who did not entirely choose their roles.
I have too many great things to say about this play, so I will restrict myself here to James MacDonald's exquisite production currently being presented by Manhattan Theatre Club at the Biltmore Theatre. First, a few (or several) words to those unfamiliar with the play: go see this production; disregard the bizarre and misleading Sex and the City ad campaign; and gentlemen, please note that this play speaks solely to feminists only inasmuch as Hamlet is consolatory fiction exclusively geared toward Danish princes who have recently lost their fathers. Oh, and Churchill has pioneered the use of overlapping dialogue, which is employed to dazzling and dizzying effect in the first act, so if you do, in fact, listen to it as a musical overture, you will be able to enjoy the themes at play without worrying about hearing specific information. (Bernstein's overture to Candide is a brilliantly layered capitulation of the songs that will follow; can a playwright not engage the same technique?)
But as promised, I return to the subject of James MacDonald's exquisite production, which can be best discussed in terms of his smartly-chosen collaborators. Matthew Herbert's menacing train ride of a score blends perfectly with Darron L. West's subdued nightmare of a soundscape, both of which are no less responsible for the ghost town ambience than the locations deftly suggested by Tom Pye's sets and Christopher Akerlind's lighting: the restaurant, the Top Girls employment agency, and the interior and exterior of Marlene's sister Joyce's lower-class household. The witty costume and hair and wig design of Laura Bauer and Paul Huntley (respectively) are of a piece with the numerous women of various vintage portrayed by this cast of seven (all play multiple roles except for Marvel).
To say that Mary Beth Hurt is criminally underused might suggest that her fellow castmates are undeserving of the amount of stage time they receive; this is not at all the case. That said, Mary Beth Hurt is criminally underused: her silent presence as an unflappably efficient waitress is just as captivating as any of the colorful guests in Act One, and her brief job-placement interview in Act Two as Louise, a straight-laced woman in her early 40s (well, 46) who finds herself a dinosaur amongst the job-getting girls of the next generation, is reason alone to see this production. As Win and Nell, the second-tier (under Marlene) girls of the employment agency, Jennifer Ikeda and Ana Reeder are perfect examples of said generation: sexy, sassy, and stuck. Their transformations—Ikeda's obsequious Nijo to her desperately jovial Win; Reeder's barbaric Gret to her flat and mutinous Nell—are nothing short of chameleonic.
Mary Catherine Garrison shines in four separate roles, including Kit, the precocious 12-year-old best friend of Marlene's niece, Angie, and in perhaps the funniest scene of the play, as Shona, a very very young-looking 29-year-old whose résumé, like her genes, seems a little too good to be true. The selfless and singular Martha Plimpton blurs any distinction between comedy and tragedy as the gangly and well-meaning teenage Angie, and the self-possessed Pope Joan, curious at her ethereal detachment from her own gender. Marisa Tomei's Isabella Bird is superbly funny. As Joyce, Marlene's proudly abandoned sister still living in their hometown, Tomei's simmering, if ambivalent, rage towards her younger sibling could chill blood. (My only quibble with her interpretation of the role is that by throwing her last line behind her back as she exits, she fails to give the final scene the rock-bottom ending it deserves.)
And finally, there is the intrepid Elizabeth Marvel. I have had the immense pleasure of seeing her onstage numerous times in the past decade, and her work, like Caryl Churchill's, is nothing short of visionary. Marvel's Marlene—dressed in gaudy power-jewelry and a black dress suit—appears at first glance almost a transvestite. Not a vixenly scrapper, but a handsome hardballer who all but lives up to her semi-joking self-assessment, "I'm not clever, just pushy." There is nothing heartless about this Marlene; quite the opposite, in fact. She has only done what she could to survive, and seeing her half drunk, chilly, and alone at Joyce's kitchen table in one of the final moments of the play, it is clear she has learned how to do little else.