Top Girls

A friend invited me to get a free ticket to see Carol Churchill’s Top Girls, presented at the Bitmore Theater in NYC. What an treat. Fist of all, we had great seats — 6th row. Second, we got to use the patron’s lounge, which included free M&M’s and wine during both intermissions. The drama on stage was superb, some of the best acting I’ve ever seen! But the drama off-stage almost usurped the whole experience for me.

As the lights lowered, I unzipped my purse and there was a slight whiz to the zip. A grumpy bear of a man sitting next to me, who looked as if he was about to nod off, peered at me with serious discontent at this with a look like
“Make one false move and I’ll kill you.” I thought, oh no, I’m sitting next to “one of these.”

“One of these” is one of these older gentlemen who is no longer a gentleman, but a rude, uncouth monster and the theater is full of them these days.

10 minutes into the first act, he was fast asleep, thank goodness. But then again, so was I.

The first act of the play, and particularly the first 20 minutes are difficult to sit through. In Act I we see Marlene, a career gal, hosting a dinner party with five women from history who have accomplished something important for their era. I found the choice of women rather odd, since none of them had accomplished anything per se, save Pope Joan. Pope Joan, who disguised as a man, was rumored to have been the Pope between 854-856 AD, although likely a character from a legend popularized during the Middle Ages.

The six of them, Isabella Bird, a Scotswoman who traveled in the late 17th Century, Lady Nijo, a courtesan to a Japanese emperor in the 11th Century, Dull Gret, the subject of a painting, Patient Griselda, from fables and Pope Joan, all talk over each other while they eat and none of it is very coherent. I couldn’t help feeling like all these women are just talking about themselves. Then suddenly, it happened. The old red-haired woman sitting in front of us (a lady version of the old monster man), turned to her lady monster friend and said in quite a loud voice (she could’ve been an actor her voice was so robust) “What’s going on? I don’t understand anything.”

The mean man next to me woke up at this. Who dared speak in the theater? Without a moments hesitation he tapped her on the shoulder and yelled “BE QUIET.” He could’ve been a drill sergeant, his voice was so loud. They were no longer at a theater surrounded by others and actors on stage performing, they were in their own playground throwing stones at each other.

“DON’T TOUCH ME.” She yelled back.

Then, nearly punching her out, he yelled “If YOU DON’T BE QUIET I’LL HAVE YOU THROWN OUT!

“I’ll CALL THE POLICE.” She retorted, as if she said this on a daily basis.

Then, all was quiet and the play went on. When the lights came up, the man I was so frightened of, turned to me and asked me about my playwriting. I guess he overheard me chatting with my friends. He certainly seemed nice enough. But then, the arguing and drama started again, and I excused myself.

Upstairs in the patrons lounge I was shoved out of the way by an old woman who just had to get her M&M’s.

When the second act started, the mean man and his wife were gone, but I was thinking what’s the deal with all these gray haired meanies? I guess when you get past a certain age, you no longer care about being polite. When you go out to a theater with a very old subscriber base, like MTC has, this is oh so evident. A majority of the older people seemed pushy and impatient, which is understandable. Getting old sucks. For some, just getting to the theater was a huge struggle; they don’t feel good and they’d rather be at home and in bed. I get it. Still is no fun to be sitting next to so many that are so GRUMPY. It’s a good thing, the play improved with the second act.

In ACT II, we see Marlene again, busy at work the “Top Girls” employment agency. She’s just been promoted and the action centers around what a great accomplishment it is for a woman to be promoted over a man, which she has been. Turns out, Marlene has given up a lot to get to this position. Her sister, played excellently by Marisa Tomei, adopted her daughter, Angie, who is now a teenager and sadly “thick in the head.” When Angie, who guesses that Marlene is her real mom, shows up in the city at her job, Marlene tells the other girls that Angie couldn’t work at “Top Girls” because she isn’t going to “make it.” The play shows that to be a “Top Girl” you need to have it all, brains, beauty, style – and be self centered enough to leave the losers behind.

What to make of all this? It’s not a typical structure, but the play somehow builds to a coherent end that sums it all up.  I originally thought the women in the first act at the dinner party were odd choices as none of them were “known” — were actually brilliant choices for their relatively unknown accomplishments.   “Top Girls”  is any “girl” that does something strong, which is every woman, every day.

After the play, I went out with the “girls” until 3AM – and the play inspired us to talk all night. Of course we talked about Hillary and women’s issues. Now that’s good theater.

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