It is easy to imagine a more successful Broadway production of Caryl Churchill’s fascinating play Top Girls than the one now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Biltmore Theatre. It’s easy to imagine a cast more comfortable with the panoply of accents they’re asked to adopt—or, perhaps, a cast not forced to layer so many accents on top of the already demanding character work they’re required to do. (If standard American English works for Martha Plimpton’s Pope Joan, why can’t it work for the rest of the characters in Act One?) A better production wouldn’t have worried whether its cast included a face familiar from movies and television, and therefore might have found someone better for the job than Marisa Tomei, whose genuine talent is all but buried under accents she’s nervous about screwing up and anxiety about projecting her voice that leads her to shout all her lines. (She’s not as palpably uncomfortable as Oliver Platt was in Shining City, but that straining-to-be-heard thing that film actors do onstage is very much in evidence here, and is exacerbated by the overlapping dialogue.) I’d like to see a production where the costume designer didn’t get so excited about the “set in the 1980s” part of the job: Laura Bauer’s designs for the legendary figures of Act One are perfect, but when the ordinary women take over in Acts Two and Three, the just-stepped-out-of-a-Cyndi-Lauper-video look is more than a little distracting. I found myself staring in horror at Marisa Tomei’s jeans, which fit her even more awkwardly than her Yorkshire accent. And oy, those Yorkshire accents. It’s hard to imagine a production doing a worse job with that. It’s easy to imagine a more intimate set design; easy to imagine a brisker pace for the second act. And it’s very, very easy to imagine a better poster design than what graces MTC’s website, Playbills and advertising circulars: a series of glamour shots of the cast members—oops, make that most of the cast members. The wonderful Mary Beth Hurt wasn’t young or pretty enough to make the cut (and, in the end, isn’t that just what Churchill’s play is all about?).
As I say, all of that is easy to imagine. But it's not easy to come by. Top Girls was first produced in 1982, but it has never been produced on Broadway, and though I can't say MTC has produced the best of all possible Top Girls, they deserve credit for producing it at all. The play is difficult, demanding, rewarding, thrillingly theatrical—and all of that comes through in MTC's production; perhaps not as strongly as it might, but it does come through. Elizabeth Marvel is terrific, and Martha Plimpton is superb—her take on Pope Joan, imperious and casually masculine, had me shrieking with laughter. (Hi, Martha! That was me!) I would have liked to have seen more of Mary Beth Hurt (and less of Marisa Tomei). And I would love to see that first act again. So if challenging and rewarding and thrillingly theatrical is something you value in a Broadway play, then this is your chance. Bring a high tolerance for bad accents; be aware that the play is long; do what I did and read it ahead of time if you have a chance. And make sure you get a seat in the orchestra section, or at the very least in the first row of the mezzanine. The renovated Biltmore is extremely comfortable and beautiful, but the mezzanine is so sharply raked that if you're sitting behind the first row, you'll spend the whole night looking at the tops of the actors' heads. It's difficult enough to know who's speaking when you can actually see their faces. Luckily for me, the first row of the mezz was mostly empty by the start of the third act, so I had a decent seat for at least that last scene. I suppose that's not such great news for the show—those seats were largely occupied when it began—but I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing if MTC's patrons, people who sat through stuff like Brooklyn Boy and After the Night and the Music and didn't immediately cancel their subscriptions, are walking out of Top Girls. Plenty of others stayed, and on the way out they were all talking about the play—not "Where have I seen that actor before?" or "I couldn't hear a thing, could you?" They were discussing the play itself. Congratulations, MTC, that means you're doing something right.