Thought provokingTop Girls
Amazingly, time has not aged those "Top Girls."
It's been more than 20 years since British playwright Caryl Churchill's bracing, often biting examination of women, power and class first caused a fuss in London and later in New York. Judging from the Williamstown Theatre Festival's meticulous revival (directed by Jo Bonney), the key seems to be anchoring the evening in the blistering domestic confrontation between Marlene, an upwardly mobile executive, and her bitter, blue-collar sister, Joyce. Their battle gives this often outlandish, sometimes intellectually precocious play an emotional underpinning that resonates even after the curtain has come down.
The astringent, brittle Marlene, portrayed with single-minded assurance by the wonderful Jessica Hecht, is at the center of "Top Girls," which was written in the early 1980s, the height of the Thatcher era in England.
It's Marlene who serves as hostess during the play's opening _ and most controversial _ scene. The setting is a trendy restaurant dinner for a parade of minor historical or literary figures, including a woman thought to have been the first female pope and a character from Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales."
Among the other guests: a garrulous Scottish traveler from the Victorian era; a concubine for the emperor of Japan; and a woman come to life from a painting by Brueghel. The wine flows and so does their conversation, boozily ricocheting around the chic surroundings designed by David Zinn.
Bonney stages the dinner scene with compelling theatricality, and although the deliberate overlapping dialogue sometimes clouds what these women are saying, Churchill's intentions are pretty clear. There's a price to be paid for everything _ whether you are a pontiff or head of the Top Girls Employment Agency, which is where Marlene lands.
Marlene has given up a lot in her ruthless climb to the top, including a dimwitted daughter raised by the woman's petulant sibling. As the dour sister, Becky Ann Baker is just about perfect, capturing her unhappy lot, which includes precarious finances and a rocky marriage. The actress exudes a defiant sadness that is as hard as it is heartbreaking.
Hecht is the only one of the all-female cast to play a single role in the production; several do double and even triple duty. Ellen McLaughlin is effective as both that gender-bending pope and as a prim, older woman looking for a job in a market that covets youth.
And there is lovely work by Laura Heisler, particularly as the damaged daughter Angie, a young woman desperately trying to find her way in life. Yet the others, Reiko Aylesworth, Brienin Bryant and Elizabeth Reaser, also offer strong support.
Churchill, author of such plays as "Far Away" and "A Number" (done off-Broadway last season with Sam Shepard in a lead role) radiates originality. And "Top Girls" is a startling, adventurous play. Just the sort of thing one hopes Roger Rees, the festival's new artistic director, will continue to present.
"Top Girls" runs through July 31.
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