PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Top Girls — Tony Girls?

Certainly — and suddenly! — Tony nominators have a super-arduous weekend of deliberation ahead of them, thanks to the 11th hour arrival of Top Girls May 7 at the Biltmore, serving up a mother lode of prime actress contenders for consideration.

Marisa Tomei, Martha Plimpton, Elizabeth Marvel, Mary Catherine Garrison, Ana Reeder, Jennifer Ikeda, Mary Beth Hurt and James Macdonald..
Marisa Tomei, Martha Plimpton, Elizabeth Marvel, Mary Catherine Garrison, Ana Reeder, Jennifer Ikeda, Mary Beth Hurt and James Macdonald.. (Photo by Aubrey Reuben)

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?'"

Plimpton has a high old time of it as Her Holiness, wearing a smug secret smile and exuding a throaty pomposity. "I'm just delighted to be wearing that outfit, what can I say?" she, in fact, said. "You don't have to do research when you're wearing that hat.

 

Alec Baldwin, S. Epatha Merkerson, Keith Carradine and Hayley DuMond, Scott Cohen, Adriane Lenox, Becky Ann and Dylan Baker, Leigh Silverman with Liz Flahive, and Dallas Roberts.
photos by Aubrey Reuben

"First of all, she's sorta like King Arthur — apocryphal. We're not sure she really existed, and the research that is there on her is mostly fiction writing — and not all of it is good, if you know what I mean. There's a Liv Ullmann movie about her, so basically I was very lucky because I was left to my own devices, and I can just listen to the writing of the play itself and the scene itself and see what's needed."

Angie, the rebellious 16-year-old she plays in the other two acts, required a more earthbound approach. "The thing that I like about Angie — even though she's troubled and confused and maybe people thinks she is a little slow or not quite with it — is that Angie is really in tune with the world around her, and she actually does kinda know what's going to happen to everybody. Not everybody else knows what's going to happen to them, but she's the one who plants the seed about getting the sisters together and she's the one who actually leaves and goes to London. She's got chutzpah. She's brave. She may not know exactly how she's going to do something, but she lives purely in the moment, and I love that about her. I love playing that."

Garrison had only kind words for hair designer Huntley. "The man is a genius," she declared. "He gave me four different characters. I'm forever grateful to Paul."

Her favorite character is Angie's playmate, a difficult child as well: "The one that I enjoyed playing the most, I think, is the 12-year-old, for some reason. It's so free because they are so completely unself-conscious in their bodies, and, believe me, that is really great for an actress not to have to worry about that sort of thing." Top Girls is not just a strong feminist statement, Garrison contended. "I guess that would mean a strong socialist statement. Y'know, Caryl is very active politically, and she's got a brilliant political mind. A lot of her questions here are like, if women are striving so hard to be a part of the value system that Margaret Thatcher represented when the play was written, is that really a value we really want to be a part of?"

Ikeda, who makes the biggest leap of womankind — from feudal Japan to fast-track England, believes that the play "poses more questions than answers, which is one of the great things about her writing. And it is about feminism, but it's also about capitalism so that's where it could appeal to everyone, regardless of gender."

Her joy is two-fold: "I'm not only thrilled to be making my Broadway debut, but to be making it with this piece of writing and this cast of women is truly an honor."

Reeder, likewise, relishes in her 180 degree turn — from a 16th-century peasant woman to a 20th-century career woman. "And I enjoy changing my wig, too."

All of the above had nothing but lavish praise for their director. Plimpton's was typical: "I love working with James Macdonald. He's a brilliant director — very quiet, very understated. He almost sneaks up on you from behind. You're not exactly sure what he's doing when he's doing it, but man! He's great, and he trusts the actors a lot. He gives you a lot of space, a lot of room, and he's patient patient patient."

Macdonald returned the compliment. "I had a very delightful time, yes," he responded. "We have a wonderful American cast here. They were a very powerful and clever bunch of people who are just a pleasure to be in a room with."

Would the British politics of the play be off-putting for Americans? He thinks not. "There is such a parallel between British politics and American politics," he said on opening night. You had Reagan. We had Thatcher. So, in a lot of ways, our destinies are linked. And I think the jobs of the working women, or anyone who aspires to work, is probably the same in this country as it is in Britain."

He is regarded as a foremost interpreter of Churchill, and his work in New York ( A Number at New York Theatre Workshop and, most recently, Drunk Enough To Say I Love You at The Public) certainly supports that rep. This is his first try at Top Girls.

"I've done a lot of Caryl's recent plays, but I've never gone that far back in the back catalogue so the pleasure of it was to do a play in which she finishes the sentence."

The cast of <i>Top GIrls</i> take a curtain call.
The cast of Top GIrls take a curtain call. (Photo by Aubrey Reuben)