The Playgoer: MTC Audience: Top Girls Hard!

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

MTC Audience: Top Girls Hard!

The story out of Manhattan Theatre Club the last couple of weeks has been all about the walkouts during their previews of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls. This production (directed by the masterful young Brit James Macdonald and starring the stunning American actress Elizabeth Marvel) is actually the Broadway premiere of the play--playing MTC's Biltmore venue. So it's a different audience from the play's original home at London's Royal Court or the Public, where it had its NYC preem 26 years ago.

So NY decided to throw together a little "interactive feature":

The pre-opening buzz about the Broadway production of "Top Girls," Caryl Churchill's 1982 play about a the lives of women over the course of several centuries, was mixed. Some people said they couldn't wait to leave at intermission; others thought the play was a masterful exploration of third-wave feminism.

In his review for The Times, Ben Brantley calls it a "well-acted" revival that is "directed with intelligence and sensitivity." To find out what audience members thought, we asked several people at the final preview to share their thoughts. Following are excerpts from selected conversations.
So take a listen. I'm glad they made the effort to get "both" sides, at least. But does the "angry subscriber" get privileged here?

Notice the title of the feature is "untangling Top Girls." As if it's this inscrutable sphinx in demand of untangling. Little do they know, I guess, it's probably the most "accessible" thing the woman ever wrote!

Among the highlights said by the haters: one says the overlapping in the first scene (scripted by Churchill) must be to lessen the running time, another feels misled that the play isn't "modern" enough (she must have left after the first scene), and another only came because Marisa Tomei was in it (she was disappointed).

Needless to say that amazing, legendary opening scene (so beloved by all who really study the play) loses a huge patch of the audience from the outset and if they don't walk out immediately they spend the next hour or two still expecting the rest of the play to "explain" that beginning. Or at least follow the same pattern.

I mean--is it even that hard to understand??? Call it a dream sequence if you have to (though I'm sure Churchill would consider that too limiting) but clearly that first scene gets you inside Marlene's head as she prepares to take a new corporate job, one that marks her ascendancy (she thinks) to becoming a powerful woman. That she fantasizes surrounding herself with the company of true feminist icons who--when you think about it--put this mere businesswoman to shame, you realize it is an ironic celebration. This all gets fulfilled in the last scene's family argument over whether Margaret Thatcher's rise really represents a victory for women (as Marlene, of course, insists, seeing herself in Maggie) or just a furtherance of policies that will continue to oppress women under the guise of one of their own.

I myself haven't seen this production. I've heard mixed things even from people who love the play. But these violently confused responses seem to me inevitable when you plop a piece of deliberately difficult, serious theatre in the middle of the Great White Way. Let's just face it Broadway is just rigged against this kind of endeavor. I guess we should applaud MTC for trying. But what has been accomplished?


Anonymous said...

Last semester, I taught TOP GIRLS to an Intro class. Even though they were quite bright, I have to say that the play received a similar reception.

Or is it just the curse of the Biltmore?

Jaime said...

I think it's a stellar production. I'd never read the play (just the last scene), and was expecting something challenging and twisty. What I found was completely winning. The first scene is *funny* and wonderful, and the rest of the play builds to a powerful ending. The whole thing is remarkably coherent. I'm sad it's being portrayed as this difficult thing. Sure, it's a little odd. But it's lucid and just damn good.

Anonymous said...

I just saw the production last night. I felt it captured the play well, but hardly lived up to the impact of the original Royal Court production. However, I do think that MTC does the audience a huge disservice by not including ANY program notes. One page of short biographies of the women featured in the opening scene (and a reproduction of Dull Grete's painting) would help to orient an audience, especially one willing to pay attention. Lincoln Center does amazing program guides—why is MTC too lazy to write even a single page for their Playbill?

I met some "typical" theatergoers who were doing a really admirable job keeping up. During the intermissions, I gave them a bit more background on some of the women, which they appreciated. I'm sure these patrons would have been exactly the sort to read and benefit from some helpful notes.

Big, big mistake skipping them.

Malachy Walsh said...

It says more about how audiences are conditioned today by other media (see my comments on Parabasis) than anything else. That alone makes the Times "interactive feature" worth the effort to watch.

And it proves why Bruno's right. Notes are ALWAYS a good idea - especially in an age when so few are unwilling to have any curiosity about different ways of presenting a story.

I'm glad MTC did the show. It's a great and worthwhile show, whatever the audience said on the way out. (And it makes me wonder how the same theatregoers would've responded to FAR AWAY.)