New York Magazine

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Girls Town


From left, Mary Beth Hurt, Ana Reeder, Jennifer Ikeda, Elizabeth Marvel, Mary Catherine Garrison, Marisa Tomei, and Martha Plimpton in Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, opening at the Biltmore on May 7.  

Elizabeth Marvel calls it “this very cacophonous joyful noise,” and Martha Plimpton likens it to a “crazy piece of Philip Glass music,” whereas director James Macdonald prefers to think of it as a “string quartet” that on a Broadway stage becomes “slightly more operatic.” It’s the groundbreaking first act of Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play Top Girls, a dinner-party scene hosted by Marvel’s character, a successful executive named Marlene, and attended by such figures as history’s only female pope (Plimpton), a Victorian adventurer (Marisa Tomei), and a Japanese concubine (Jennifer Ikeda). (The more conventional next two acts, for which the actors switch to contemporary roles, examine the sacrifices Marlene has made to get where she is as the age of Margaret Thatcher sets in.) Churchill, who hasn’t had a full-scale Broadway production in twenty years, designed this raucous single-scene Act I as—yes—a symphony of sometimes aggressive, often overlapping, not always comprehensible dialogue spoken by seven actresses. “We have slash anxiety,” says Plimpton, referring to the slashes with which Churchill marks out exactly when these women cut into each other’s protofeminist monologues. What looks deliberately messy actually takes a lot of precision. Tomei, who plays Marlene’s working-class sister later on in the play, says, “There are ten things that are hard about that scene,” but stealing lines from other actresses is the hardest. “I really don’t like talking over people.” But doesn’t being in a Y-chromosome-free zone help the cast bond? Sure, “sharing makeup tips, giving each other makeovers,” Plimpton deadpans, allowing that “there’s an attention to communication that you wouldn’t get if you had the male energy there.” Marvel notes the absence of “weird issues,” and says that, though their director is male, “James is British, so he’s part woman. No disrespect.”


Current Issue
Subscribe to New York

Give a Gift