Elizabeth Marvel and Marisa Tomei in Top Girls
(© Joan Marcus)
Elizabeth Marvel and Marisa Tomei in Top Girls
(© Joan Marcus)
The crucial top girl in theater activist Caryl Churchill's complex Top Girls, being revived by Manhattan Theatre Club at the Biltmore, never appears on stage. She's former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was setting the country's political tone during the early 1980's when the play was written in what appears to be a quiet rage. Unfortunately, one of the besetting problems of the play -- which 26 years later has lost more than some of its topical impact -- is that only late in the third act does it become clear what Churchill has been driving at. She is taking a bluntly critical look at Thatcher's dehumanizing social programs and their far-reaching divisive effects, especially on the country's women.

Whether audiences even make it to the third act of James Macdonald's visually beautiful production -- courtesy of Tom Pye's fluid, ethereal sets and Laura Bauer's costumes -- is another issue. In act one, liberated modern woman Marlene (the fine Elizabeth Marvel) hosts five prominent women from different periods at a sumptuous Casa Bianca dinner: Pope Joan (Martha Plimpton) hailing from the ninth century, Victorian traveler Isabella Bird (Marisa Tomei), Patient Griselda (Mary Catherine Garrison) of Chaucer and Petrarch fame, 13th-century emperor's concubine and Buddhist nun Lady Nijo (Jennifer Ikeda), and Flemish warrior Dull Gret (Ana Reeder).

Because Churchill carefully indicates in her script that she wants the diners to speak over each other -- and Macdonald follows the instructions pretty much to the letter -- there's no way to hang on their every word. While some watchers may find this too frustrating, Churchill considers it sufficient that the audience gets a sense of what they're carrying on about -- that they're filling in the changing positions woman held during their disparate lifetimes. On top of everything, their audibility isn't always helped -- in this act and elsewhere -- by the fact that Top Girls calls for a variety of accents that a couple of the cast's actresses (most notably the often underappreciated Tomei) find way too daunting. The difficulty is so marked that it feels as if dialect consultant Elizabeth Smith may have simply thrown up her hands and retreated to a corner.

As act two begins, those ladies are gone, and adolescent Angie (Plimpton) -- identified as Marlene's niece -- is at home teasing her much younger friend Kit (Garrison) and ignoring her mother, Joyce (Tomei). Eventually, Angie decides the thing to do is travel to London and crash with Auntie Marlene, who is presiding as the managing director-elect at the Top Girls Employment Agency. Marlene, her co-workers and a string of job hopefuls (including Mary Beth Hurt, who is also the silent waitress in act one, and Garrison in two strikingly different roles) present another set of contemporary women in a sequence of short, pithy sketches. As for Angie's unexpected arrival, it only interrupts Marlene briefly, although the prospect of her niece's moving in doesn't delight her.

Act three -- if you're still following this -- takes place a year earlier when Marlene last visited older sister Joyce in Suffolk. As it turns out, the trip was solely Angie's idea, and while this misunderstanding gets straightened out -- or at least explained -- a significant secret comes to light about Marlene's reliance on Joyce as a step toward her being freed for what she sees as an independent career. Only when sacrificing Joyce lashes out does Marlene become aware of her trade-off's hefty costs, and only then do audiences realize Top Girls has just been Marlene's story. She's woman as victim and victimizer, then and now, and not -- in Churchill's ultimately ironic message -- truly a top girl, after all.