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note: entire contents copyright 1999 by Larry Stark

"Top Girls"

by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Peyton Craig

Set Design by Andrew Stuart
Lighting Design by Sharon Brown
Stage Manager Sharon Brown

Marlene..................................Elizabeth Stuart
Lady Nijo/Win.........................Gina McMahon
Isabella/Joyce/Mrs. Kidd...............Jami Rogers
Dull Gret/Angie.....................Beth Manspeizer
Pope Joan/Louise......................Francine Davis
Waitress/Kit/Shona....................Holly Vanesse
Griselda/Jeanine/Nell...................Ashley Ayers

Caryl Churchill writes plays for which the critical term "quirky" had to be invented. In the second and third acts of "Top Girls" for instance scenes precede rather than follow one another in time, while the first act --- which I will deal with last --- may be a separate play altogether. Despite those quirks, a crisp production by the new Breakthrough Theatre tackles women's choice between career and motherhood head on and offers a critique of Thatcherism and Reaganomics in the bargain.

That second act is set in an employment office where a crew of bright, efficient young businesswomen interview other women looking for jobs The interviewers routinely start out warmly solicitous, yet turn cruelly cold once they have the interviewees' confidence. They have power, and they use it.

Elizabeth Stuart plays Marlene, newly promoted to office overseer over a man who also wanted the position. When his wife (Jami Rogers) comes to plead that the wound to his ego at this career setback has been devastating yet he's too old to start elsewhere, she's told, essentially, "Tough cheese!" and dismissed. Marlene has power, and she uses it.

But Marlene's sister Joyce, also played by Jami Rogers, is raising a daughter (Beth Manspeizer) in a poor neighborhood and on a shoestring. This Angie --- a great lout of an eager teenager, turns up one morning at the Top Girls Employment Agency with no education and no typing skills expecting "Aunt Marlene" to turn her into a swan. But the busy executive has turned her back on both her niece and her sister with the full realization that they could hold her back. She is a success, and believes that success deserved on her own merits, though she has had to cut away from any family life in order to gain it --- and she must conclude that those who haven't succeeded obviously get exactly what they deserve

In act one, Marlene gives a dinner party at "La Prima Donna, a celestial dining room" to which are invited a surprising collection of old friends. Dressed oddly, and loudly and assertively prattling on about their lives, they seem at first masquerading, then perhaps "personating" real figures from the past; eventually it is obvious that except for Marlene these really are the apocryphal Pope Joan, Lady Nijo of the feudal Japanese emperor's court, and other historic or mythic women who made their mark.

Once the play comes to its conclusion, it's easy to look back and see this first act as almost a set of "improvs" that give the doubling and even tripling actresses their basic characters. In particular, the untutored Angie is mirrored in Dull Gret, a peasant girl painted by Breugel who has memories of peasant uprisings and fantasies out of Heironymous Bosch. Until this improv-aspect becomes dimly clear, the major thing this first act makes clear is that throughout the play people will speak while others are speaking, and self-absorbed characters will rarely listen to one another.

This is a solid and well-drilled cast of seven women doing seventeen roles in crisp, neat interaction. Artistic Director Peyton Craig keeps the play's secrets (which cannot be revealed in this review) until the characters themselves reveal them, and the pace of often deadly office banter slips easily from offhand to intense. On the Actors' Workshop stage Andrew Stuart has used minimal props that imply just enough to evoke a spiffy office or a lower scale hovel. And, aside from that quirky first act, Caryl Churchill's message always arises out of the action. For the new Breakthrough Theatre, this is an auspicious beginning.


"Top Girls" (till 27 March)
Actors' Workshop, 40 Boylston Street, BOSTON
1(617)491-5019 (Ask for Peyton)

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide