Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Playwrights Who Make Us Squirm

Just saw the revival of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls at the Biltmore – the play that famously begins with a drunken dinner party (in 1982) for a “modern woman,” Marlene, whose six voluble guests, all of them legendary or anyway historical, include Pope Joan, patient Griselda, and an imperial concubine from 14th-century Japan. Only later, in the more naturalistic scenes (Marlene has just been promoted – over a man! – who has a heart attack in consequence – to a managerial position at a head-hunting firm), did I realize what Churchill was up to. Like me, she reads a great deal of history and spends a great deal of time chatting with folks long dead, especially when traveling in their former haunts. And as the play plays out, and you see what Marlene’s rise to the “top” has cost her, and why she has been willing to pay (and has tried to ignore the price), you understand why she chose those particular “top girls” for her celebratory dinner. (In real-time probably a solitary stinking-drunk-night.)

In fact Marlene has no friends she dares confide in, rely on, let go in front of – so she must bring them in from the past, dead (even imaginary) ladies who cannot betray her or rival her for the attention of any men present. (Men barely count at all in her world – they’re just work-mates or playmates.) By the conclusion, when melodramatic if predictable ancient secrets have been unearthed, you understand Marlene's life, the price she has had to pay for success that makes her unhappy, lonely, and drunk, and the ghastliness of the alternatives she would probably have faced had she made other choices.

This is a bit of a trial, I infer (from comments on the NYTimes review), for audiences expecting an ordinary drama – many of them left before the end last Tuesday. It’s also a tour de force for seven actresses (in 15 parts), which no doubt accounts for its popularity with producers and performers. I found the “employment interview” scenes uncomfortable to sit through – brought back the agonies of my own job-seeking when I did not want the jobs on offer, could not imagine what I did want.

Long live playwrights unafraid to make us squirm, eh?

And the acting was wonderful, most notably Elizabeth Marvel (Marlene), Mary Catherine Garrison (as an itchy kid and a chippie trying for a job), Mary Beth Hurt, Jennifer Ikeda as an employment "counselor" who accidentally talks too much of her own empty life, belying her delicious smile, Martha Plimpton as another itchy kid and as drunken Pope Joan, Ann Reeder as a cheerfully ruthless employment "counselor", and Marisa Tomei as Marlene's bitter sister - she was not good, however, with the improbably Scottish accent of a Victorian traveler, and in fact accents are a problem throughout, though aside from Tomei's Scot, they did not prevent me finding the machine fascinating.

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