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Top Girls, at MTC's Biltmore Theatre

Caryl Churchill's Top Girls was first performed in 1982 which is really the only explanation that I can think of for what now seems its willful idiosyncrasy. Stripped of its bravura elements or, in any case, of its first act Top Girls is a keen and cynical look at the price of "advancement" for modern women unlucky enough to have been born without the safety-net of affluent origins. Marlene (Elizabeth Marvel) is a capable and industrious daughter of Suffolk's flatness who migrates to London, where she flourishes in an employment agency. The agency is, of course, the perfect vehicle for assessing the desires and capabilities of the women who pass through it, agents and applicants alike. Without being tediously bleak, Ms Churchill's grasp of women in the workplace is rigorously unsentimental. I was reminded of concentration camp inmates whose altruism has been abraded away.

Back in Suffolk, Marlene has left not only her sister, Joyce (Marisa Tomei) but a daughter, Angie (Martha Plimpton), a simple-minded girl who has been brought up to believe that her aunt is her mother. In another playwright's hands, the Suffolk scenes that flank the interviews at Top Girls (as the employment agency is sardonically known) might have made a drama of revealed secrets, but Ms Churchill more single-mindedly (and effectively) treats it as the flip side of London's scramble for success. For the scramble itself is not enough; life or society or whatever force is in charge exacts a steep price on the family that is left behind, if, as here, there is one. Marlene, visiting her sister, must ask herself if her own career in any way redeems the drab and careworn life that Joyce, tending to family, is stuck with. And she must ask this question even though she believes that she has no choice but to try for secular success.

As such, Top Girls covers extremely familiar ground. Ms Churchill's focus on the social physics of a woman's care (as opposed to say, the vagaries of the heart, which make small impression here) gives the material surprising zest; her unsentimentality tips always toward reckoning the price of the practical, not the costs of deep or forbidden desire. Perhaps no playwright can better dramatize, in interesting scenes, the calculus of career choice. The three principal actresses are beautifully ably supported in the Top Girls scene by Jennifer Ikeda (as a pert agent with a heart of bronze), Mary Beth Hurt (a governess), and Ana Reeder (an experienced girl with little office experience), but their own performances are indelible. Ms Plimpton is all elbows and eagerness; like a baby, she doesn't know her own strength. Ms Marvel captures Marlene's fast and funny bitterness so well that it's hard to imagine anyone else's playing the part. Ms Tomei outshines everyone, however, with her unbending grasp of Joyce's rootedness, which she best expresses when she has nothing to say.

This two act "essence" of Top Girls, then, is a fresh and well-wrought variation on a familiar theme, ably produced and acted (Tom Pye's scenic designs are perfectly tuned to the action). The first act, a fantasy dinner-party in which Marlene, endowed for the nonce with a toff's accent, hosts a gathering of long-suffering women from the lands of fact and fiction. Two Isabella Bird (Ms Tomei) and Lady Nijo (Ms Ikeda) appear to have been real, while Dull Gret (Ms Reeder), Pope Joan (Ms Plimpton), and Patient Griselda (Mary Catherine Garrison) are more legendary. These figures speak about their travels with only the slightest regard for the rules of conversation, and the tiresomeness of the scene, given the unusual nature of Ms Churchill's engaging conceit, is unpleasant to acknowledge. I should have liked to see the scene played between the other two acts, not ahead of them, if only because I should have had a finer appreciation of what is, essentially, Marlene's fantasy of herself. I hesitate to blame James MacDonald's direction for the first acts lack of amusement; this part of the show has the air of something that was once upon very new and shiny, and is now shiny without being ripe. (August 2008)

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