Brit legit helmer James Macdonald is on a roll. His arrestingly spare productions have turned heads on both sides of the Atlantic, his West End revival of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” just opened to rave reviews and he makes his Broadway directing debut in the spring with a revival of Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls” for Manhattan Theater Club.
Macdonald now finds himself in a bout of wholly accidental but satisfying symmetry.
Having shown London the masterpiece of an American dramatist, he’s about to reverse the scenario, tackling a key work from a leading British dramatist for New York auds. His staging of “Top Girls” opens May 7 at the Biltmore with a cast led by Elizabeth Marvell.
As Macdonald points out, in typically measured tones, that’s only the start of the parallels.
“They were both written between 1983 and 1984,” he observes. ” ‘Glengarry’ is a play for seven men, ‘Top Girls’ is for seven women. Mamet’s play is testosterone city to Churchill’s estrogen. To an extent, both are about a culture of targets and achievement.”
Macdonald believes neither play has become dated. “I think ‘Top Girls’ is as fresh as a daisy,” offers the director. “The ’80s target culture it examines has spread to schools and hospitals — that’s how we all live now.”
In other words, Macdonald is not updating Churchill’s classic study of women and the price they pay for survival. The emotional and political showdown of the final scene in particular locates the play absolutely within the go-getting 1980s world heralded by Conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. As Macdonald sees it, “A lot of those arguments are still with us after six years of Bush.”
Although the production will be in period, Macdonald and designer Tom Pye will not be leaning too heavily on that in visual terms. “I don’t think we’ll major in shoulder-pads,” he says.
“Top Girls” will be his second Churchill play next year. Having premiered the writer’s terse, equally politicized latest work, “Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?” at London’s Royal Court last November, Macdonald will redirect the play at the Public next spring. An as-yet-unnamed actor will join London cast member Ty Burrell in this oblique two-hander about British-American foreign policy over the last 50 years.
This is not the first time Macdonald has ricocheted across the Atlantic with a Churchill script. Having first staged the work at the Royal Court, in 2004 he helmed the U.S. preem of “A Number,” her play about cloning, at New York Theater Workshop. Macdonald has since made his screen debut with a film version of that play starring Tom Wilkinson and Rhys Ifans, which is in post-production for HBO.
His career is unusually dominated by new plays — he premiered three of the five plays by the late Sarah Kane, including “4:48 Psychosis,” which played a short Gotham stint. And although he’s now freelancing, Macdonald spent 14 years as associate director of the Royal Court, the U.K.’s leading new writing venue.
It was there that he premiered Christopher Shinn’s oblique antiwar play “Dying City” in 2006, before reconceiving the production and recasting it for Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.
Macdonald observes he may not have a day off before May, because on top of his Manhattan projects he’s also squeezing in a British premiere at the National Theater. And it’s not small. “The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other,” the English version of a 1992 play by Austrian dramatist Peter Handke, has 25 actors playing an eye-widening 450 characters — with no dialogue.
“The basic assumption of plays is that characters come on with a reason to say something, preferably downstage center,” explains Macdonald. “This explodes all that. The script is a long, beautifully written stage direction detailing life in a town. Handke’s theory is that all stories are happening elsewhere. It’s about how we don’t relate to one another.”
His description suggests the detail and precision of an extended movie crowd scene. Macdonald sees it slightly more akin to a giant piece of choreography.
“It’s an enormous beast that’s already eating me alive,” he confesses.
Meanwhile, the American dimension to Macdonald’s directing has given him fresh perspective.
“The British think of the U.S. as a film culture,” he says. “But there are so many good theater actors in New York. There’s a level of commitment and technical expertise that’s just inspiring.”