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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Biltmore Theatre


  Martha Plimpton/PH:Corey Hayes

Seven of New York's best actresses are currently sharing a stage in Manhattan Theatre Club's fine revival of Caryl Churchill's brainy, ambitious three-act play Top Girls. Headed by Elizabeth Marvel, Martha Plimpton and Marisa Tomei, the hardworking ensemble rises to the challenges presented by the 1982 feminist drama.

The first act is the most challenging-for the audience as well as the actors-but it's also the most memorable. The setting is a restaurant in early eighties London, and Marlene (Marvel) is hosting a dinner party celebrating her promotion at work. She has invited an eclectic assortment of women who lived in different eras. There's the fast-talking 19th-century Scotswoman Isabella Bird (a well-disguised Tomei) the 13th-century Japanese courtesan Lady Nijo (Jennifer Ikeda) the 9th century's imperious Pope Joan (Plimpton) the sweet, longsuffering Patient Griselda (Mary Catherine Garrison) of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and the amusingly uncivilized Dull Gret (Ana Reeder). For anyone unfamiliar with the play, it's hard to figure out who these women are and what they could possibly have in common. Making matters more difficult, their dialogue often overlaps, so the audience misses some of what they say.

So what do these women have in common? Well, they all accomplished great things in their respective times, but they also gave up a lot. Some had to give up their children. In the first act Churchill shows the incredible hardships faced by intelligent, strong-willed women in earlier centuries. It seems that Marlene, the newly named managing director of the Top Girls Employment Agency, has had a much easier life in a time when competent women could attain positions of power.

In the second and third acts, however, we learn that Marlene has also paid a price during her climb to the top. In the second act, we meet Marlene's working-class sister Joyce (Tomei) and Joyce's tomboyish daughter Angie (Plimpton). Angie can't wait to get away from her mother and their small town in Suffolk. She idealizes her successful aunt and envies her life in London. The action then moves to the Top Girls agency, where the employees are happy enough but the women seeking new jobs are less content. Louise (Mary Beth Hurt) has devoted 25 years to one company yet finds herself stuck in middle management while men and women she trained advance.

In the third act Marlene returns to her hometown, and Churchill reveals what she's given up over the years. For one thing, Joyce resents her and doesn't share her values: while Marlene is a diehard conservative. For Churchill, the Thatcher era wasn't a bed of roses even for high achievers like Marlene.

Although the references to England's tough-as-nails Prime Minister aren't as resonant in 21st century NewYork as they were in in early eighties London, Churchill's daring play hasn't its power. Director James MacDonald deserves much of the credit for making Top Girls both entertaining and intellectually stimulating. He's lucky to have such an accomplished group of actresses, who do excellent work in all their roles.

Marvel, the only cast-member who doesn't play multiple characters, gives a beautifully nuanced performance that reveals Marlene's strengths and weaknesses. Plimpton is perfect as Pope Joan, who disguised herself as a man and reputedly ruled as Pope before she was unmasked as a woman. She is completely different and just as good as the awkward Anngie. Tomei does a convincing Scottish brogue as Isabella, then radically changes her accent and posture as Joyce. She also plays Mrs. Kidd, whose husband was passed over for the managing director job that Marlene got. Garrison im


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