Dramatic craft should never be the handmaid of social conscience. Playwrights who value causes above character are generally politically ineffectual and, worse yet, theatrically diffuse.
Caryl Churchill's Obie-winning Top Girls is, according to its own press, "a play by a woman, about women of the past and women of the present. It serves as a warning for women of the future." Clearly, the playwright has an agenda.
The Pulse Ensemble Theatre's revival, directed by Alexa Kelly, pits this agenda against substantive craft. Their production never liberates the theatrical handmaid. It is, however, a compelling expose of this insidious condition.
The opening scene is a feminist set piece extrodinaire. Marlene (Susan McGeary), our protagonist, has just been promoted to General Manager of the Top Girls Employment Agency. Most of us would go out for cocktails with a few office chums. Marlene throws a dinner, inviting five female archetypes from the worlds of art and history. There's Dull Gret (Susan Barrett) an armor-clad heathen with a grotesque prosthetic nose. She's recently escaped from a Brueghel painting in which she led a charge of righteous warriors through the Inferno. With her unrefined table manners and flailing sword, she's essentially comic relief.
Lady Nijo (Ivana Kane) is a 13th century courtesan to the Japanese Emperor. Patient Griselda (Joyce DeGoort), you lit majors may remember, is the obedient wife in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Both have submitted totally to a man, both have seen their children murdered, and fallen out of their man's favor. The complacency with which they accept their circumstances incites the ire of Marlene, Gret and Churchill's intended audience.
Then we meet Isabella Bird (Christine Jones), a 19th century Scottish explorer who keeps interrupting her spiritual sisters. You'd think a Victorian might know some manners. She does, however, assume some of the xenophobia of her age.
Finally, Joan (Sydney Davolos) whirls on stage, in velvet vestments, ready to get some laughs. She put one over on the establishment by posing as a man and serving as Pope from 854 to 856. They wouldn't have been the wiser if she hadn't gone into labor during a procession through Rome. Her child was killed and she was stoned to death. She delivers this news as if it was the punch line, drawing horrified silence from her dinner companions.
The set, with vine-covered peach walls, evokes the party-room basement of a mediocre Italian bistro. The women are arranged around the table, facing the audience. This is The Last Supper, and yuppie Marlene is nearing her own crucifixion. Churchill's characterization ultimately transcends the career woman stereotype, but in this first scene, we know very little about Marlene. She is a stranger, laughing in embarrassment at her companions foibles, or recoiling at the past debasement of the female gender.
These stories overwhelm both protagonist and audience. Abandoned in this surreal world, we struggle to attach ourselves to any one of the parade of characters who get up and offer their woes like participants in a twelve-step program. Though each dinner guest is either dead or fictitious, neither whimsy nor revelation ever surface to explain the purpose of this lengthy prelude to an otherwise-realistic play.
The subsequent scenes convey the harsh realities of Marlene's life and, implicitly, the lives of many contemporary women. The brutality of daily interaction, and the lower-class British milieu, suggest John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, or the films of Mike Leigh. Had the playwright the courage to dispense with the overture, or perhaps place it at the end when the audience would be aware its relevance, the theatrical handmaid would be able to carry out her task with slightly more dignity.
Marlene, we learn, became pregnant at seventeen. Her older sister Joyce (Elizabeth Rotham) adopted the mentally-challenged child. Now, fourteen years latter, Marlene's daughter Angie (Stephanie Fybel) has summoned her birth mother to their house without Joyce's knowledge. The rivalry between Marlene and Joyce speaks to the compromises demanded from women, while playing out a searing family drama.
The play was written as Margaret Thatcher's Tory government was consolidating its power. The self-reliant Marlene has voted for this conservative revolution, confident in the redemptive power of capitalist spirit. Joyce reproaches her, demanding to know how Angie would fare in Marlene's callous, Darwinian scenario. Although this political discussion is specific and obvious, it fits with the combative element in the sister's relationship. Within the context of the narrative, this discussion is never as dry or cerebral as the weighty first scene.
Meanwhile, at the Top Girls Employment Agency, Marlene is struggling to achieve. She's won her promotion at the expense of Howard, who has been there longer and is his family's breadwinner. Howard's wife (Joyce DeGroot) comes to the office, begging Marlene to relinquish the job. This misguided wife is but one of the insightful character sketches which populate Churchill's disturbing, authentic working world.
Somewhere within this opus, there is a compelling three-act play, rich with strife and honesty. An astute audience might glean from such a drama exactly the lessons Caryl Churchill is straining to teach. The power of a narrative is derived from the investment a viewer makes in its characters. If these characters embody political struggles, the lessons are more potent when the audience has reached this realization on its own.
This is a reality of the theatre, but so-inclined playwrights rarely let it deter them from mingling causes and craft. Failure on these terms comes only when the drama is subsumed by the issues. Of course, as Top Girls demonstrates, the shifting balance itself can engage a wary observer.
The Pulse Ensemble Theatre is located at 432 West 42nd Street. Reservations may be made by calling (212) 695-1596. Top Girls runs through November 17.
-- By Kevin Reardon