Marlene, the high achiever in "Top Girls," wears layered outfits and a blunt haircut that screams '80s working woman.
But in her 1982 play, British dramatist Caryl Churchill is keen on exploring the accomplishments and sacrifices of women throughout the ages, not just during the Margaret Thatcher era.
It's fertile territory, and frequently tilled. Though the play is overly talky and circuitous, incisive performances by seven actresses in the Manhattan Theatre Club production make it a fine final entry to the 2007-08 Broadway season.
In the colorful and odd first scene, Marlene (Elizabeth Marvel) hosts a dinner party to celebrate her promotion at the Top Girls temp agency. Her guests are a bizarre bunch that includes Isabella Bird (Marissa Tomei), a Victorian globetrotter; Lady Nijo (Jennifer Ikeda), a 13th-century concubine, and Pope Joan (Martha Plimpton), who lived as a man and was stoned to death when she had a baby. And there's Dull Gret (Ana Reeder) and Patient Griselda (Mary Catherine Garrison), famous women from a 1562 painting by Brueghel and Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales." Why them? you'll wonder.
The scene demands attention and patience. Characters talk in thick accents (Tomei's Scottish burr is highly amusing) and constantly interrupt each other. What they discuss - stories of achievement and of losing children and leaving people behind - makes sense only after the realistic second and third acts, which focus on Marlene's work and personal life.
Director James MacDonald, who staged Churchill's "Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?" at the Public, expertly guides the cast and brings out the story's rich humor. Tom Pye's imaginative set featuring gauzy buildings feels as much like an art installation as scenic design. Laura Bauer's smart costumes fix characters to a time and place.
As the lone cast member who plays just one part, Marvel expertly captures the brittle - maybe even mannish, at times - climber of the corporate ladder. Marlene's roots show during a visit with her working-class sister, Joyce (Tomei), and dull-witted niece, Angie (Plimpton), whose maternity becomes key to the story. Tomei and Plimpton are very affecting.
Mary Beth Hurt convinces as a jittery job-seeker grilled by Ikeda's sharp temp-agency career girl. And Garrison is particularly fine in four roles, including Angie's younger playmate Kit. Ultimately, these girls are stuck at the bottom, but Churchill's "Girls" climbs toward the top.
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