The last opening of the 2007-2008 season is the latest argument, festering all year long, for a Best Ensemble Tony. Manhattan Theatre Club's meticulously cast and executed revival of Caryl Churchill's feminist tract of 1982, directed by James Macdonald, is wall-to-wall wonderful actresses at the top of their game. Incredibly, as of this writing, there's not a Tony winner among 'em, although the inestimable Mary Beth Hurt has made a pass at three. Elizabeth Marvel, who usually toils downtown, has raked in four Obies; Martha Plimpton has nailed a Drama Desk prize, and Marisa Tomei has bagged an Oscar. Rounding out this magnificent seven stirring the cauldron here are the no less remarkable (just less awarded) Ana Reeder, Mary Catherine Garrison and a Broadway-bowing Jennifer Ikeda.
Among them, these ladies carve up 16 different characters who come in an assortment of sizes, shapes, centuries and accessories (hair and wig designer Paul Huntley and costume designer Laura Bauer contribute powerfully to the galloping camouflaging that is going on, and the actresses' natural skills take it from there).
Obie goddess Marvel, shedding her lizard skin from Seascape, looks great (if a bit late) in the star-spot of a big Broadway show. She is the only actress to stick to one role throughout: her Marlene is an ambition-fueled careerist in London of the early '80s, making her ascent at the dawn of Thatcherism, thunder-footing her way to the top of a job-placement firm that pep-talks women into positions of corporate power.
To celebrate her promotion to managing director of Top Girls Employment Agency, Marlene throws herself a power-luncheon at a swank Italian restaurant, inviting The Legends Who Lunch — women through the ages who have survived and thrived in a man's world, often making great sacrifices because of the machinations of men: Patient Grisela (Garrison) from Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales"; Lady Nijo (Ikeda), a 13th century courtesan to the Emperor of Japan; Isabella Bird (Tomei), a Victorian adventuress with a thick Scottish burr; the perhaps-apocryphal Pope Joan (Plimpton), who paraded as a man until she gave birth; and Dull Gret (Reeder), a Flemish firebrand out of Brueghel's 1562 painting. Apparently, Joan of Arc sent regrets.
"Lunch," such as it is, is a feminist fantasia for Type-A personalities. It runs one act, or about an hour, with everyone talking at once or over each other to make their individual voices heard — yet all are coming from the same place: They are all strong women who have made painful concessions in their lives to get where they're going.
Marlene is in the same boat, it develops in Act Two and even more sharply in Act Three, when the play returns to the all-too-real-world. In the second act, she's seen in the workplace, in command, defending her turf even against her own gender — the long-suffering, long-supportive wife of her office rival (Tomei), a situation that echoes a messy scene in David Hare's Plenty. The last act, which occurs a year before the first two, finds Marlene returning to her roots and the rustic poverty that drove her up the business ladder, visiting her working-class sister (Tomei, again unrecognizable). The two talk politics from opposite sides of the fence and then come together over their shared secret — spoiler alert! — that Marlene surrendered her illegitimate daughter (Plimpton) to her sister to raise as her own. It's a plot twist usually found in seasoned soap operas ("To Each His Own," "The Old Maid"), but it's employed here sans suds.
"I love the whole play," Marvel admitted later at the Hard Rock after-party, "but I love the third act. You can't act it. You just show up and be, let your instincts happen. It's exhausting but not as exhausting as raising a toddler. I come to work to rest.
"Being a working woman, I'm still wrestling with a lot of the things that these women in this play wrestled with two decades ago. There hasn't been a lot of change in the world. And, of course, there's the immediate connection of Hillary Clinton/Margaret Thatcher — the politics of a woman in office, what that means."
Marlene — definitely not Marvel, she stressed — is the Thatcherite here. Then, she tossed in a qualifier: "I don't think she's a deeply political person. I think a lot of it is just to go at her sister and to go against her family. I don't think she's a political animal."
Tomei also is fond of the play's concluding sister act: "That last scene is its own little play — really, its own little play — but I always look forward to it because it has a different kind of rhythm. This play uses so many different kinds of acting skills. In some scenes it's quite technical, in some scenes it's more emotional and soulful.
"By the time we get to that scene, I'm always happy I that made it through the other scenes so I think there's a certain amount of relaxation that happens. The other scenes — especially the first scene — is so challenging." But not because of the accent, she noted. Accents are easy for her. "If you drill them enough, it becomes natural."
Hurt spends the first act in total silence as the no-nonsense waiter, hustling wordlessly around the room, taking orders and fulfilling them, but she does manage to steal focus and swipe a laugh slyly by grabbing a half-finished drink and downing it. That bit of business was invented at the last press preview, she confessed. "It only happened last night. That was the first time that I did it." Pause. "It just happened."
Act Two allows her words to play with — as a middle-management matron who has given her all to the office, only to be passed over in the homestretch by a younger and less competent co-worker in pants — but Hurt hits the emotional notes under the words, implying the pain the character represses. "I'm quite fond of her," the actress admitted. "I felt Caryl wrote a complete character. It would be too easy to think, 'Oh, she's a bitter 46/50-year-old woman who is not going anywhere. She's not there.' But I didn't think that was half of her. I thought, 'She is a woman whose mother has died. She has been passed over by men for a long time. But she's still trying.'"
She does not necessarily subscribe to the notion that strong women make sacrifice because of the men in their lives. "Sacrifices are made, but I think they are made because they are the particular women that they are — not because they were forced by a man to make a choice. That's why I don't think the play is dated. I think it is still fresh in many ways — because it isn't a rant. To me, it's much more of a rumination about 'How did I get here? What choices did I make to arrive where I am?'"
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