Top Girls opens with a party, but it withholds the good wine long enough to make you think you're at a wedding with Jesus. Under Casey Stangl's direction at the Guthrie Lab, the famous opening scene from Caryl Churchill's 1982 play goes down like a chardonnay from a lesser jug--bad enough to make you think you'll be in for a long night. But the scene is crucial to what follows, and what follows is sometimes brilliant. So for Christ's sake be patient.
In that first scene, five historical and legendary women join a modern executive for dinner. They relate their life stories through speeches and overlapping dialogue, stressing the sacrifices they made to survive in a patriarchal world. Patient Griselda (Andrea Wollenberg), best known from Chaucer, tells of her tireless wifely servitude. Pope Joan (Marquetta Senters) recounts her triumphs and tragic fate as a female pontiff. The host is hyperconfident Marlene (Bianca Amato), who's celebrating her promotion to managing director of London's Top Girls Employment Agency.
Each guest's grand arrival is cued with a snippet of "appropriate" music (Gregorian chant for the pope, Wagner for the soldierly character). It's a cornball choice that cheapens the act nearly as much as the set's similarly obvious Plexiglas iconography of '80s women (including folks, such as Oprah Winfrey and Madonna, whose significant cultural impact came after the play's action). The scene is a great conceit, but at least in this interpretation, it feels stiff and didactic. Churchill's overlapping dialogue is part of the problem, inviting us to forget the individual players and recall the playwright--which is probably part of the author's design, and is assuredly frustrating.
What ultimately works about the first scene is how it sets up Marlene as a kind of feminist heroine, an uncompromising woman who is succeeding in ways unavailable to her spiritual ancestors. As the play progresses in realistic early-'80s settings, Marlene is revealed to be a heartless jerk who espouses the cruelest social Darwinism of the Thatcher-Reagan era in a Mike Leigh/Ken Loach-style family showdown with the sister she left behind. Anyone can get ahead if they have what it takes, she insists, and if they don't, tough luck.
Representing capitalism's casualties is Marlene's niece Angie (adult actor Suzanne Warmanen) a disturbed-but-sweet 15-year-old whom Marlene callously calls "a bit thick." Churchill's socialist message gets its most eloquent delivery from Warmanen's pathos-rich reading of Angie. Her bleak prospects and doe-eyed self-hatred are heartbreaking; her popeyed idolization of Marlene is even more so.
I completely understand why they made a movie out of A Few Good Men: The cliché-pocked script by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) is a Hollywood audition every step of the way. I also understand why it was a hit: The snappy dialogue is, uh, snappy enough, and the plot sucks you in right up to the artless resolution (which I won't give away, an act of generosity the playwright was apparently incapable of). What I don't understand is why Pigs Eye Theatre Company thinks this journeywork is worth reviving onstage. I'll suffer a fair amount of banality if I get to suffer it while eating ice cream in bed in front of the VCR, but criminy, shouldn't we ask for more from the theater? Shouldn't we ask for more for 15 bucks?
Having chewed through much of my available reviewing space with the above spleen venting, I don't have room for both a plot summary and the deserved cast commendations, so screw the plot. (It's a military courtroom drama.) There are 21 (!) people in this Zach Curtis-directed production, and several do yeoman work with hackneyed parts. Here are my four favorites: 1) Ryan Parker Knox for his fragile Pfc. Louden Downey; 2) Stacia Rice for getting every laugh there is to get out of Lt. Cmdr. Joanne Galloway; 3) Michael Lee for his charmingly insouciant Lt. j.g. Daniel Kaffee; 4) Brandon Aarowood for the fire and brimstone he brings to Lt. Jonathan James Kendrick. Still, I can't help but think that these 21 actors could have been put to more meaningful employment--maybe a touch-football game.