Barbara Walters used to ask celebrities she interviewed to choose someone they'd most like to have as a dinner companion. The answers usually varied from current flames to historical icons. In the revival of Caryl Churchill's 1982 play, "Top Girls," the stage is set for a most unusual dinner party, but the guests are probably not ones Walters' celebs would have selected, let alone even heard of.
Pope Joan, the first of six guests, got away with her gender-bending ruse for nearly two years -- until she had a disastrous public birth and was stoned to death; Isabella Bird, an independent world traveler during the Victorian era when women didn't travel alone, was a journalist; Dull Gret, the subject of a Pieter Breughel painting, who led a charge into Hell to fight devils, wears the garb of a warrior, yet went on to have 10 children; Lady Nijo, a 14th century emperor's concubine living a glamorous life was loaned out to other lovers; and Patient Griselda, the wife in Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Clerk's Tale," was a poor peasant who married a man she promised to obey despite his abuse, yet came out on top anyway.
This unlikely gathering is hosted by Marlene, a business executive who imagines herself dining and discussing important issues of life with, well, top girls of the world. Reminiscent of Steve Allen's 1970s television show, "Meeting of the Minds," in which he had, among others, Karl Marx debating with Marie Antoinette, the sharing of the women's life stories is fascinating.
Written purposely with overlapping dialogue, making it difficult at times to catch everything the women are saying, this is, nonetheless, a dinner party any woman would wish to attend. What becomes quickly obvious, however, is that, despite the progress women have made during the past centuries, the French adage still applies: plus ï¿½a change, plus c'est la mï¿½me chose.
But the dinner party creates a transitional problem for the audience. Although it foreshadows events that take place in the rest of the play, it makes a profound metaphorical statement by itself -- and metaphors don't play well onstage. The connection Marlene has between this reverie and her own life is distant at best, and the abrupt cut from the dinner party to reality is unsettling, at best.
Marlene is a woman who tried to have it all, but found herself defeated despite her best efforts. The route she took is neatly laid out by Churchill, but the politically active playwright also had an axe to grind, in this case, taking a swipe at the Thatcher government by making Marlene a Thatcher monster. Having gotten her promotion over a man, Marlene's cutthroat conniving is not without consequences. Though idolized by her niece, Angie, who loves her aunt's beautiful clothes, fancy office, and exciting life in London, Marlene is lonely, unfulfilled and unconnected. Her employees are wary of her, and her sister, Angie's mother, is unimpressed.
And by the way, so are we. Acts II and III, though groundbreaking back in the '80s, are as dated as dial telephones. You just wish that Churchill had stayed with the dinner party. As the women reveal the details of their lives, how they'd been used and abused, humiliated at the whim of men, their children confiscated or murdered, the first thought is to head home and do some research. That, and the top acting jobs by top actors playing multiple roles, are the pleasure of "Top Girls."
The versatility of Marisa Tomei and waif-like Martha Plimpton are wonderfully exhibited here. Elizabeth Marvel plays the Marlene with sensitivity of bull, and though we'd like to admire her character's accomplishments, we still cannot abide her methods.
That odd lot of dinner guests, however, stay with you. Unfortunately, "Top Girls" cannot be greater than the sum of its parts, which are disjointed, the connections coming too little and too late. The intensity of the dinner party is never sustained in the rather banal soap opera that follows, and one almost thinks "Top Girls" should really be two plays. Though it's worth seeing for that marvelous first act alone.
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus
"A well-acted revival." & "Itï¿½s the commitment and enthusiasm of Mr. Macdonaldï¿½s 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?"
New York Times
"Though the play is overly talky and circuitous, incisive performances by seven actresses in the Manhattan Theatre Club production make it a fine final entry to the 2007-08 Broadway season."
New York Daily News
"It's a provocative play, one that - 26 years later - makes one think and think again."
New York Post
"Mostly tackling several roles, expert players spark the drama with striking performances." & "Still. Something vital is missing from James Macdonald's production, which gets flat toward the conclusion. Possibly the message's impact has lessened over 25 years. Maybe the relatively intimate piece doesn't suit a Broadway house."
"Other than briefly in the first act, which goes on too long, "Top Girls" is never boring. Its style trumps its substance."
"A top-notch company of actresses for its compelling revival of what is one of Churchill's most intellectually bracing plays."
"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." & "while the play remains inextricably keyed into the zeitgeist of Thatcher's Britain, its originality is undiminished in MTC's incisively acted Broadway production."