SAN DIEGO — If only it lived up to the promise of its beginning, "Top Girls" would be a dazzling play about women.
As it is, British writer Caryl Churchill's contemporary drama gets lost in its feminist, socialist concerns, a play with too many important things to say--issues that have been bottled up in women's minds for centuries--and not enough concern for whether an audience can follow the twists of time, place and character.
Churchill opens the cap on the timeless concerns of womanhood in her riveting first scene by inviting five fascinating women of history and one contemporary businesswoman to dinner.
They talk more than they eat, sharing excerpts from their adventurous lives, congratulating Marlene on her rise to the head of Top Girls Employment Agency in London, laughing, crying, comforting and comparing notes on the sacrifices they've made to stretch beyond the limitations of tradition.
But even the exciting group of actresses assembled by director Meg Wilbur at the San Diego Repertory Theatre's Lyceum Space have been unable to bring focus to "Top Girls."
The seven women double and triple their work to play the 16 characters the script demands, led by Wilbur through the treachery of scenes where everyone speaks at once, foreign dialects and rapid emotional shifts.
But the outstanding performances they give cannot rectify the main defect in Churchill's play: Nothing that comes after is as interesting as having dinner with Pope Joan, Dull Gret, Lady Nijo, Patient Griselda and Isabella Bird.
Marlene (Kate Frank), elegant in her white satin and pearls, keeps the wine flowing and the conversation moving as Lady Nijo (Jeanne Mori), a Japanese courtesan turned Buddhist nun, whimpers over the girl babies taken from her and the indignities endured as a woman raised for an Emperor's pleasure.
Crusty Isabella Bird (Ellen Crawford) shares glimpses of loneliness from her 19th-Century travel adventures; Pope Joan (Barbara Murray) chants in Latin and shocks the group with the tale of her 9th-Century demise; Patient Griselda (Darla Cash) steps out of "The Canterbury Tales" to speak of tolerance and psychological cruelty; Dull Gret (Kathie Danger), a full-flesh subject from a painting by Brueghel, grunts and belches and finally lets loose with the fury of her trek into the mouth of Hell to battle the devils making her rustic life miserable.
Marlene's devils are inside her. The dinner party ended, Churchill moves back to contemporary England to get a good look at them. They resemble something like the conflicting tugs at the conscience that come of "selling out" to achieve material success, power and recognition.
These devils come in the form of Marlene's abandoned child, Angie (excellently played by Danger); her lower-class roots embodied in the worn-out frame of her sister, Joyce (Crawford); the desperate wife of the man she beat out for her new job; the shallowness of her co-workers; the coldness that ends her compassion for the plight of those less "clever" than she--unfortunates like Angie.
Here, Churchill's socialist pitch enters, making subtle pleas for those who simply cannot compete with the likes of Marlene. She chides women who adopt the selfish greed of the men the women's movement has so frequently derided.
Certainly the playwright's points are valid and the turn to problems affecting the entire male and female population is welcome, but from a purely theatrical perspective the play suffers. Audiences seem confused by the sudden introduction of the troubled Angie, or by the last scene, which jumps back one year and is stuffed with references to class differences, British politics, and--at the very last moment--the truth of Marlene's sell-out.
There is no arguing that Churchill is an important playwright. She is speaking a language we need to hear. "Top Girls" may have worked against itself by possessing such a clever beginning that no one stopped the play in process long enough to perfect all its parts before it was picked up by a host of producers eager for meaty women's roles and issues.
The Rep's production makes the most of this important commodity. Frank, Crawford, Mori, Danger, Murray and Cash, with Teri LaPorte (who plays three smaller roles) are fabulous.
There are long moments when the recollection that they are but actresses doing a scene vanishes and it's as if they are playing their own lives before our eyes.
But the moments do, indeed, grow longer as one wonders just where this meandering story is headed.
Dan Dryden's slick chrome, black and glass superstructure adapts well to the three-quarter configuration of the flexible Lyceum Space, spruced up with pink tablecloth for the dinner scene, high-teched for the office setting and dingied for the trips back to Marlene's lower-class roots.