In 1982, Caryl Churchill wrote a play about what it takes for a woman to achieve great professional success. Although it was performed professionally in London and here off-Broadway, it was never brought to a Broadway stage. This year, Manhattan Theatre Club included Top Girls in its season, the play's first-ever Broadway production. In 1982, Top Girls was cutting-edge in its poignancy and honest rhetoric on the issue of equality in the work place. In 2008, it rings as somewhat historic and outdated. How far we've come in 26 years.
It’s not that Top Girls is unrelatable. The play centers on Marlene, a British woman who has just been made Managing Director at the employment agency where she works. Told in three separate scenes with intermissions in between, the audience learns who Marlene is, how she achieved her success, and what she lost along the way. It seems that women can’t be professionally successful and have families or loving relationships. We learn that Marlene has sacrificed everything to get to where she is, and maybe doesn’t really regret her personal sacrifices anyway.
There are still issues with gender equality in the workplace, don’t get me wrong. Women still don’t make as much money as men, and often have to work harder to prove themselves. But the issues presented in Top Girls seem almost antiquated to what women encounter today. In 2008, it’s possible for a woman to have both a family and a career. Resources are available and society doesn’t shun women who desire both. Also, there are many women CEOs and even heads of state. Hell, we almost had a woman president!
Top Girls is an interesting look at the history of this issue and this production, directed by James MacDonald, keeps everything firmly set in 1982. It would have been silly to try to bring this plot into the current time, so MacDonald gently reminds the audience that the time period on display is not the present. The play has a feminist air about it (strong women achieving great things, and all). My boyfriend saw Top Girls with me and requested that I only recommend it for “people with vaginas.” I think that’s somewhat accurate although anyone with an interest in the subject matter would be intrigued.
Although Top Girls is well-executed and incredibly well-acted (Martha Plimpton is friggin’ amazing), it doesn’t resonante as wholly as it should. Maybe it’s that the subject matter isn’t relatable, or maybe it’s because Churchill’s script is wordy and somewhat tetious. You should know that Top Girls is not a passive or light experience; the audience has to work a little to stay with the story. But it does have its funny moments and the acting is top-notch.
(Top Girls plays at Manhattan Theatre Club at the Biltmore Theatre, but only for the next two days! Saturday 2pm and 8pm and Sunday at 8pm. Visit mtc-nyc.org for more information.)