“Top Girls” by Carol Churchill, a noted feminist, is an exploration of the sacrifices that women have to make in the name of ambition and the male attitudes that are adopted in order to succeed. The first act seems to be a living embodiment of Judy Chicago’s installation art piece “The Dinner Party,” – which was first exhibited in 1979, so might have influenced Churchill as “Top Girls” came out in 1982. Marlene is hosting a dinner party to celebrate her promotion at work. However, instead of inviting friends or family, her guests consist of historical, fictional and mythical women. Their conversations overlap and meander as they all speak of their own life experiences and sacrifices that they had to make. It is a dinner party where everyone is talking, but hardly anyone is listening. The second act, set in 1980’s England, provides glimpses into Marlene’s life both at work and her personal life. The sacrifices that she has made are evident as is the destruction of those she has left behind in her quest for success.
I have always stood by the hard and fast rule that if I’m going to review a play I have to watch the entire thing. The theory behind this, is that no matter how bad the first act is, there is always the possibility that the second act will be so good that it redeems the evening. I have stood by this rule regardless of the fact that I had never seen a play that actually managed to do it . . . until now. Antaeus’ production of “Top Girls” has now validated my belief that productions can indeed get better and redeem themselves by the end.
I did not like the first act. It’s hard to effectively stage a dinner party, it’s even more so when the characters are historical figures with their own agendas. The first act of this play is abstract and pretentious, and that’s just the script. If done successfully I can see how this approach highlights the sadness that all of these women have achieved out of the ordinary things, yet no one cares to listen or acknowledge what they have done or what they had to sacrifice to get there. Sadly it is not done successfully here. The overlapping dialogue is unmotivated, seemingly disconnected and the staging is stagnant. The majority of the first act feels like actors reciting lines at, not to, each other while Gret, played by Etta Devine*, eats and drinks everything in sight. Devine has a few funny moments, but that’s it. By the time all of the characters had been introduced, I had lost interest in all of them. I was looking forward to intermission and a large glass of wine.
However, for as protracted as the first act was, the second compensated. The last scene of the play alone is worth the price of admission. Out of order chronologically, we see Marlene and her coworkers at the Top Girls Agency as well as scenes back in her home town with her sister Joyce and Joyce’s daughter Angie and friend Kit. Devine, who also plays Angie and Alexandra Goodman as Kit do a marvelous job of portraying naïve school girls with capricious whims. But it is Sally Hughes as Marlene and Karianne Flaathen as Joyce that truly shine. Their interactions as sisters, with years of pent up secrets and animosity, is stellar. Whether they’re arguing about their past or politics the sibling rivalry and jealousy seethes under every line they say. The ending is powerful and beautifully informs all of the scenes in the second act that came before.
The set construction by Red Colgrove and Colgrove Scenery help to tell the story perfectly. Consisting of moveable walls, decorated with horizontal bars and accent lighting, the set easily transforms into each new location. Since the lights are only dimmed slightly during the changes the audience is able to see each new set arrangement come together like a giant puzzle. Which is fitting since the pieces of Marlene’s story fall into place with each new scene. I would have enjoyed this production immensely had I only watched the second half. However, it is worth sitting through the first act to get to the second.
*Antaeus has partner casting for all of their productions and this review was done on an evening where the High Flyers cast was performing.
Coverage provided for the Culver City News