Churchillian Eloquence

Illustration by John Gall and Ned DrewPhoto: Joan Marcus

Top Girls, newly revived by Manhattan Theatre Club, offers just about everything a certain sort of New Yorker wants from an artistic event. It’s aesthetically daring, politically provocative, intriguingly inscrutable. Also, there are movie stars. If the city’s culture omnivores—and you know who you are, you who wouldn’t dream of missing the latest DeLillo or Cronenberg or Coen brothers offering—hadn’t lost the habit of looking to Broadway for intellectual fireworks (beyond epochal Stoppard trilogies, I mean), Caryl Churchill would be the subject of dinner-party arguments all over town.

Instead, the first Broadway production of her dazzling 1982 play has been largely overlooked and badly misunderstood. (The near-total dis from the Tony nominators is only the most grievous insult.) Behind the shaky accents, overlapping dialogue, and anti-Thatcher diatribes that have confounded some playgoers, there lurks a harrowing treatment of men and women, ambition and success—a biting assault on the blithe assumptions that get most of us out of our beds in the morning.

“To our courage and the way we changed our lives and our extraordinary achievements,” says Marlene (the astounding Elizabeth Marvel). She has organized a dinner party to celebrate her promotion to managing director of the Top Girls Employment Agency. The guests, rather fantastically, are remarkable women from history: the concubine turned nun Lady Nijo (Jennifer Ikeda); the Victorian traveler Isabella Bird (Marisa Tomei); the possibly apocryphal Pope Joan (Martha Plimpton); Dull Gret (Ana Reeder), who led an army of women into hell in a Brueghel painting; and Patient Griselda (Mary Catherine Garrison), whom Chaucer tells us gave up her children to prove her loyalty to her husband. Soon they are talking to—and, frequently, over—one another.

Don’t let it throw you. As in great symphonies, plenty of what’s happening will elude you on first hearing. Instead, listen for the motifs, the little recurring themes. The most horrible one concerns the way that so many of the women had children killed or taken away. Achieving, for them, has meant profound suffering. “Oh God,” says Marlene shortly after her toast, “why are we all so miserable?”

Characteristically, Churchill doesn’t give an easy answer to that question. There are no bad guys in the scenes following Marlene’s dinner—no guys at all, in fact. Resistance to her rise comes not from patriarchal scolds but from chilly women in her office. In a stomach-churning exchange, the wife of the man Marlene beat out for the job calls her “not natural.” It’s an echo of Pope Joan’s line “I didn’t live a woman’s life.” They’re both ways for Churchill to slyly start you thinking anew: Just what is a woman’s life?

If the story merely dramatized second-wave feminism and its discontents, it might be worth reviving as a curiosity, or for its timely flourishes. (Playing a frustrated, middle-aged job seeker, Mary Beth Hurt exudes a kind of wounded pride that calls to mind Hillary Clinton.) But as it glides into its final scenes, Top Girls grows much sadder and crueler and more enduring than any run-of-the-mill issue play.

Like the dinner guests in Act One, Marlene has paid a steep price for success, leaving her daughter Angie (the excellent Plimpton) to be raised in her crummy hometown by her sister Joyce (Tomei). A visit to Joyce’s house descends into a ferocious argument about class and politics, in which Marlene defends American-style individualism and Joyce mocks its lady champion, Margaret Thatcher—a familiar fight today, however much the names have changed. Even as the sisters vent their differences, the real heartache of the story is what they share. Like their forbears, both have lost children. The most incendiary thing in this play, dwelling as it does on men depriving women of their offspring, is Marlene’s revelation that she aborted two of her own.

I haven’t much admired director James Macdonald’s prior work, including Churchill’s silly Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? earlier this year. But especially in this last collision, he works wonders, drawing one finely etched performance after another from a cast so good it’s barely plausible. (Tomei in particular hasn’t gotten much love for playing the worn-out Joyce, but she spends half an hour going head-to-head with Elizabeth Marvel and doesn’t get acted off the stage: Now that deserves a trophy.)

It’s typical of this elusive masterpiece that Churchill announces the breadth of its ultimate concerns—not just issues and relationships but the intractable human condition—in a line that virtually nobody can understand. As Pope Joan listens to her unhappy fellow diners, she recites a Latin text without identifying or even translating it. The passage turns out to be from Lucretius, describing the sorry spectacle of people scrambling for power, achievement, and the right way to live. Loosely translated, its payoff line goes, “O wretched minds of humanity! O blinded hearts!” How’s that for a valentine to all of us here in the world capital of ambition?

You’d think that if anybody understood how little is needed for a satisfying night at the theater, it’d be the New York Philharmonic. They hire great musicians. They invite an audience to listen. Everybody leaves happy.

So it was puzzling to detect a note of apology in the way the Philharmonic billed its recent Camelot as “semi-staged.” Audiences at the four-night run might have expected to see actors in basic black with scripts in hand; instead, they got a huge cast, elaborate costumes, complex choreography, sumptuous lighting, and pennants right out of Medieval Times. If this is semi-, what’s staged?

There’s still a weird prejudice around town that musicals require massive scenery or bulky apparatus to be legit, in spite of compact triumphs as diverse as Passing Strange and John Doyle’s Sweeney Todd. With the Philharmonic working its usual wonders with Frederick Loewe’s score, all the show needed was talented actors and a competent director to get Alan Jay Lerner’s words across. This is where Lonny Price’s jumbled production broke down.

The cast looked like a parody of a star-heavy Broadway musical, or one of those dreams where people from different parts of your life inexplicably collide. It’s always nice to see Christopher Lloyd turn up onstage (as the old-timey grifter Pellinore), and Stacy Keach nearly redeemed Merlin’s Battlestar Galactica–style getup. But nothing in this knightly tale turned out to be more valiant than underequipped Gabriel Byrne trying to sing and dance well enough to play King Arthur, or more fantastical than casting the squawking Fran Drescher as a wicked sorceress. The best I can say for the busy show is that it brought back fond memories of last year’s Philharmonic production of My Fair Lady, played to perfection by Kelsey Grammer, Kelli O’Hara, and Charles Kimbrough. As Higgins, Eliza, and Pickering, they could put on a helluva show on a street corner, in their pajamas.

Top Girls
By Caryl Churchill.
Biltmore Theatre. Through June 22.

Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. Music by Frederick Loewe.
New York Philharmonic. Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center.


Churchillian Eloquence