“Top Girls” is a period piece that doesn’t know it.
The “Top Girls” of the title, a group of women who work at a 1970’s London employment agency of the same name, are getting a jump on the Me Decade. Playwright Caryl Churchill wrote the play in 1982 as an attack on the late 1970’s fallout of feminism and the early 1980’s ascendancy of conservatism in Britain. While it provides the play with much of its zip, and gives an excellent cast a lot with which to work, the political tone pervading the show dates it.
The basic plot consists of two interlaced stories. In one, shoulder-pad-sporting career woman Marlene (Elizabeth V. Newman ’02) has outfoxed her colleagues of both sexes, and has been promoted to Managing Director at Top Girls, a mid-sized London employment agency. Meanwhile, in working-class Surrey, her sister Joyce (Emily Bloom ’02) struggles to raise the disturbed, “simple” Angie (Lisa Barrett ’02).
Churchill’s play takes its greatest risks early, in a fanciful dinner conversation between a jumble of semi-historical and purely fictional characters, whose lives spans the millenium. The hostess is Marlene; her guests include Ninth century “Pope Joan,” (Ginny Smith ’02); Victorian explorer Isabella Bird (Bloom); Lady Nijo (Anna Swanson ’02), a 13th century Japanese courtesan and later a Buddhist nun; Dull Gret (Barrett), a peasant woman who is pictured battling the devils in hell in Peter Brueghel’s 16th century painting; and Griselda (Evangeline Zimmerman ’03), a devoted wife to a medieval lord.
Swapping anecdotes about love, childbirth and the perils of ambition in a patriarchal world, the women are engaging and thought-provoking. The specifics change over the years — Joan worries about getting stoned (and we’re not talking about pot), while Marlene considers wearing slacks in the office — but the same issues of shame, blame and torn loyalties remain. The scene suffers from the simultaneous dialogue that Churchill has made the hallmark of the play. Under the direction of Professor David Krasner, who was no doubt constrained by a script that dictates Churchill’s intentions, it is near impossible to keep one’s head above the rising tide of chattiness. Not incidentally, the dialogue also tends to create the rather unfortunate — and unfair! — impression that women always talk at, and not to, one other.
The other distinctive plot device, which works much more smoothly than the first, is a chronological switch of the last two scenes, the second of which takes place one year before the first. Together, the two scenes present the rather familiar story of a young woman’s escape to the “big city,” while portraying the sacrifices that Marlene and her occasionally resentful family made to ensure Marlene’s success. The themes of escape and estrangement are well-known, but this unusual framework helps the play retain emotional tension and poignancy where one might expect cliches.
Between these two scenes — the early dinner party, and the harrowing final moments — lie some of the wittiest moments of the play, which occur at the Top Girls agency itself. The employees, Nell (Zimmerman), Win (Swanson) and Marlene are a handful of rapacious females. They’re catty. They’re funny. They’re more than a little scary. But are they real? It varies. Churchill swerves between near-misogyny (of a self-inflicted sort) and intense sympathy with the plight of working women. It’s a style that tends towards caricature; the soundtrack between scenes — “The best things in life are free/but you can give them to the birds and the bees/I want money!” — emphasizes the slightly cartoonish atmosphere. But unlike the dialogue at the dinner party and in the “family” scenes later, every line is spoken with vicious conviction. The series of interviews, conducted by the women with various job candidates, are especially clever and to-the-point.
By its final moments, the play has devolved from its initial focus on the degeneration of feminism to a more general criticism of the selfishness of 1980’s Britain. Can Thatcherism break up a family? Churchill asks. In some ways, the slight shift in focus doesn’t register much. Throughout, the show is inherently political — every scene, every speech is a statement. But fortunately for Churchill, the excellent, all-female cast of this show elevates it beyond that.
Appropriately enough, the strongest performances are delivered by Bloom, Newman and Swanson, all of whom are acting in the play as a senior project. As the besieged Joyce, Bloom is not pallid and weak in comparison with the ambitious Marlene; she manages to convey a quite distinctive strength and humor. As Marlene, Newman miraculously manages to maintain an air of nervous fragility, even as she announces that the poor are “either lazy, stupid, or frightened.” Finally, Swanson’s flexible and funny performances as both Lady Nijo and Win balance “beauty” and “bitchy” with incredible skill.
“Top Girls” is sometimes obvious and sometimes just old, but its nimble cast makes the most of the play’s virtues.