Keir Gilchrist

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.

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. Much has changed in the quarter-century since Caryl Churchill took stock of the legacy of feminism in this blistering examination of what women had fought for and attained, and the price they paid to succeed in a male-dominated world. But while the play remains inextricably keyed into the zeitgeist of Thatcher’s Britain, its originality is undiminished in MTC’s incisively acted Broadway production.

While plenty of evidence of professional inequities still exists, gender politics in most workplaces is no longer such a contentious issue. Indeed, what’s most interesting about having a woman running for the top job in the country is that the loudest voice calling attention to any perceived stigma has been the candidate’s own. But in many ways the expectations for women wanting to have it all now seem even higher, requiring them not just to balance career and family but to do it without body fat or frown lines.

“Frightening,” is how Churchill, in the play’s chilling final word, summarizes the outlook of a girl ill-equipped for self-reliance. And while that bleak pronouncement might seem sweepingly dramatic, “Top Girls” does make a trenchant case that courage and compromise have always been necessary for women wanting to measure up against men, and that making progress usually requires adoption of dog-eat-dog male values.

The plus ca change aspect is signaled historically by the playwright in the still-audacious opening act, which riffs on Judy Chicago’s landmark 1970s feminist art installation, “The Dinner Party.” To celebrate her promotion to general manager at the Top Girls Employment Agency, Marlene (Elizabeth Marvel, in asymmetrical Swing Out Sister bob and chunky power jewelry) invites an eclectic group of women from art, literature and history to dinner.

Among them are Victorian explorer Isabella Bird (Marisa Tomei); Lady Nijo (Jennifer Ikeda), a 13th-century Japanese courtesan-turned-Buddhist nun; Pope Joan (Martha Plimpton), believed to have headed the Vatican for a brief stint in the ninth century while disguised as a man; Patient Griselda (Mary Catherine Garrison), an obedient wife depicted in Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”; and Dull Gret (Ana Reeder), the warrior who led her fellow village women to battle the demons of Hell in Brueghel’s painting.

Toasting Marlene’s promotion, the women chatter away over the top of each other in excitedly self-absorbed non-sequiturs, sharing their experiences of male injustice and female achievement, usually with rueful sacrifice. It’s like the History channel version of “The View.”

Director James Macdonald doesn’t shrink from the uncompromising nature of this virtuoso femme-fantasia; his acknowledgement that the scene’s overlapping dialogue and encyclopedic references represent a difficult point of entry is entirely fitting for the work of a dramatist who, like her countrymen Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and Michael Frayn, consistently refuses to talk down to her audience.

In the two non-chronological acts that follow, we see the working-class Suffolk roots Marlene has fled and now regards with disdain. Even the inkling of affection she feels for Angie (Plimpton), the adoring, dim-bulb daughter being raised as her niece, can’t soften her assessment. “She’s a bit thick. She’s a bit funny,” says Marlene of the 15-year-old girl. “She’s not going to make it.”

When Angie turns up unexpectedly in London, Marlene’s flustered mortification at the messy overlap of her past into her present is the first sign of Churchill’s shift from intellectual observation into more emotionally needling terrain.

Marvel is superb at outlining the steely edges that have enabled her to snatch the office throne from a senior male colleague while showing a glimmer of the fear that keeps her looking over her shoulder. Her clipped tones slip down the class scale when talking to Angie and then click efficiently back into place as she resumes executive mode. When she barks, “Could you please piss off?” at Tomei, playing the wife of the man Marlene leapfrogged for promotion, Marvel displays the muscle that has allowed her to eliminate warmth and compassion from her thinking.

Much of act two is devoted to showing, with caustic wit, the deadening ways in which Marlene and her female colleagues (Reeder and Ikeda) have acquired professional momentum by emulating male coercion and giving secondary importance to personal life. The hasty judgments, dismissive categorizations and patronizing indifference of the interview scenes in which the top girls scrutinize prospective clients are especially revealing.

Churchill then adjusts her microscope from the sprawling context of the first act and the wry detachment of the second to the intimate focus of the sorrowful third and final act, in which Marlene visits her resentful sister and Angie’s surrogate mother, Joyce (Tomei).

Predating the rest of the action by a year, the scene is weakened by the blunt didacticism in Marlene’s endorsement of the methods and aims of Thatcher and Reagan, and Joyce’s furious rejection of them. The political backgrounding in that time is amply evident as subtext. But despite Tomei’s difficulty with the East Anglia accent, both actresses bring penetrating insights to the sisters’ personal and political conflicts. Joyce’s straight-talking unpretentiousness and her refusal of any sentimental bond are oddly moving, as is the stifled humanity beneath Marlene’s iron lady mask.

In his previous work in New York, including Churchill’s “A Number” and “Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?,” Macdonald favored an austere aesthetic, creating a claustrophobic isolation that allowed every word to resonate. Here the Brit director and designer Tom Pye take their cue unsuccessfully from the more verbose text, written in the period before Churchill started paring down her dialogue into elliptical fragments.

Dominated by a motif of crisp white, tented fabric that seems to suggest the purity, softness and transparency of a traditional woman’s touch, the fussy design concept is unclear and untidy; even on the relatively compact Biltmore stage, the elements appear swamped and disharmonious. The play and production doubtless would work better in a smaller space. And if changing the name of the opening-scene restaurant from the original Prima Donna to Casa Bianca is an attempt to force a connection to American politics, it’s a clumsy one.

Laura Bauer’s costumes are more effective, from the playful period detail of the historical fantasy to the sexless early ’80s fashions. There are also subtle correlations between past and present, such as Ikeda’s ornate kimono as Lady Nijo and her busy-print office dress, or Gret’s apron and armor with Reeder’s ghastly ethno-chic tabard and boots.

Any reservations about Macdonald’s visual scheme are countered by his razor-sharp work with the tremendous cast, all of them aside from Marvel in multiple roles.

The eccentric comedy of the dinner party allows each woman to balance humor and pathos, notably Tomei’s rugged but refined Scottish adventurer, Reeder’s fearless barbarian and Plimpton’s pompous Joan, who hilariously recounts her unexpected experience of childbirth during a papal procession. Plimpton also is heartbreaking as scrappy but emotionally fragile Angie, whose plight appears without hope, while Mary Beth Hurt has one haunting scene as an older businesswoman who has played by men’s rules only to be taken for granted.

Top Girls

Biltmore Theater; 650 seats; $91.50 top

Production

A Manhattan Theater Club presentation of a play in three acts by Caryl Churchill. Directed by James Macdonald.

Crew

Sets, Tom Pye; costumes, Laura Bauer; lighting, Christopher Akerlind; original music, Matthew Herbert; sound, Darron L. West; hair and wigs, Paul Huntley; dialect consultant, Elizabeth Smith; production stage manager, Martha Donaldson. Opened May 7, 2008. Reviewed May 2. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.

With

Patient Griselda, Kit, Jeanine, Shona - Mary Catherine Garrison Waitress, Louise - Mary Beth Hurt Lady Nijo, Win - Jennifer Ikeda Marlene - Elizabeth Marvel Pope Joan, Angie - Martha Plimpton Dull Gret, Nell - Ana Reeder Isabella Bird, Joyce, Mrs. Kidd - Marisa Tomei

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