Friday, May 16, 2008

Top Girls (The SOB Review)

Top Girls (The SOB Review) - Biltmore Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club, New York, NY

**1/2 (out of ****)

With apologies to Annie Lennox, sisters may be doing it for themselves, but as Caryl Churchill's Top Girls ultimately concludes, they're just as likely to do in themselves in their struggle to break through the glass ceiling.

Just as this year's political season only elucidates and confirms, the fairer gender is completely capable of throwing one of their own under the bus. In Churchill's 1982 play, which takes major issue with the United Kingdom's first (and to date only) female Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, rising star Marlene (Elizabeth Marvel in a performance that more than lives up to her name) is all too willing to hop in the driver's seat and run over just about anyone who stands or even lies in her way.

Marlene's an equal opportunity offender, whether the offendee is her former (male) boss, her very own sister Joyce (Marisa Tomei in one of her three outstanding portrayals), or even worse, her teenage niece Angie (a mindblowing Martha Plimpton, who also more than ably doubles as Pope Joan). In Marlene's world, power is not so much the ultimate aphrodisiac as it is the end-all.

And therein lies the conundrum in Top Girls as meticulously directed by James Macdonald. Is true equality in society a double-edged sword, something that should be handled with only the utmost care? And are women who serve as trailblazers helping or hurting other females left in their wake?

There are no clear answers, but the play begins with an amazingly surreal dream sequence in a restaurant to celebrate Marlene's exciting promotion. Only thing is the navel gazing guest list includes women from throughout history who have triumphed over male domination -- or have they? Ironically, as they swill wine and pontificate -- quite literally in the case of Plimpton's pompous pope -- they remain oblivious to the hard-working attentiveness their waitress (a marvelous Mary Beth Hurt) delivers in silence.

I can appreciate why this first act might drive some theatregoers to depart when the house lights go up. With a bit of sensory overload, the act can be a bit confounding as Pope Joan, Griselda (Mary Catherine Garrison in one of four sly turns), Isabella Bird (Tomei) and Lady Nijo (a crackling Jennifer Ikeda) talk over one another. Personally, I found the entire episode amusing, if not intriguing, akin to the way your ears dance, caught between two simultaneous, yet equally riveting dinner conversations. Taking it all in with us are Marlene -- who on reflection must realize that while she's the reason they're all there, they have scant interest in her achievements -- and the anything but Dull Gret (an understated, yet funny Ana Reeder).

The first act only crystalized for me once the play was over. To leave after the initial act would be to miss the story behind the celebration banquet -- how Marlene and her employment agency colleagues not so much help their female clients find gainful work, but stop at nothing to get to the top themselves. Even more harrowing is the storyline on how Marlene has eschewed her family and obligations at her roots.

In one of the most poignant scenes and true to her name, Hurt portrays a dejected Louise, who comes to the agency after 20 years at her current job. Far from a backstabber, she notes how underappreciated she's been and how her efforts have largely gone unnoticed. Others she has trained have gone on to bigger and better things, but because she has little of the moxie to steamroller over her co-workers, she's stuck in a rut.

In Top Girls, Churchill has essentially created a modern-day womanifestation of Darwin's social theory. Survival of the fittest indeed.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
Did Critics Place Top Girls At Top Of Their Lists? (May 8, 2008)
Opening: Top Girls Tops Off Broadway Season (May 7, 2008)

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At 17 May, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad to hear what you think of it, based on that I think I'm going to see it!

Love your blog, thanks for shareing.

UPDATE: For anyone else whose lookin to go see it check out just saved me a bundle!


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