Entertainment » Theatre

Top Girls

by Adam Brinklow
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Sep 27, 2019
Nafeesa Monroe and Michelle Beck in "Top Girls" at the Geary Theater through October 13
Nafeesa Monroe and Michelle Beck in "Top Girls" at the Geary Theater through October 13  

It's possible to pinpoint the exact moment when "Top Girls" at ACT just plain stops working.

It's right when hard-nosed careerist Marlene (Michelle Beck, from the oddball "King Charles III" at ACT a few years back) finally loses her semblance of patience with the woman in her office and tells her simply, "Piss off."

This provoked cheers and applause from the opening night audience. And it does feel like a cathartic moment; wilting housewife Mrs. Kidd (Monique Hafen Adams, a mainstay of SF Playhouse musicals) is begging Marlene to refuse a promotion so that her husband won't suffer the indignity of working for a woman, so piss off indeed, right?

The problem is that every other thing in "Top Girls," Caryl Churchill's circa 1982 parable about the dark siren's song of Thatcherism, in which ambitious women get their hands as dirty as possible to get ahead, tells us that Marlene is not our hero.

She's cruel. She's shallow. She's self-serving, and she might hate herself a little bit—that last being something of a saving grace, in fact.

(Beck, for the record, is sterling in this part, employing completely natural poise in all things.)

But despite all of this, we still cheer when she yells at a domestic abuse victim. Which, yes, is a pretty big red flag.

Maybe the problem is that "Top Girls" comes off more like three or four plays rather than one. Most of the first act is a surreal pageant where Marlene has a power lunch with people like Victorian adventurer Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal) and 13th-century imperial concubine Lady Nijo (Monica Lin).

At first, this comes off as gimmicky, and the staging looks like a weird Monty Python pile-up, or maybe a particularly erudite Super Bowl commercial that doesn't make any sense.

But these are good actors, and director Tamilla Woodard makes them each empathetic by gradually escalating the emotional ramifications of the scene, so before long, damn if this isn't good (if often confusing) theater.

There's just not enough material for that to last forever, though, and soon the vignette dissolves into a showcase about Marlene's real life that's technically related but couldn't seem less like the same story if money was riding on it.

This is also where we meet Angie, Marlene's troubled teenage niece who is besotted with hero worship over her. Gabriella Momah is nearly a revelation in this part, somewhat uncomfortable to watch but compelling enough that you can't take your eyes off her.

But, again, Angie's story feels almost entirely separate from the rest of the show. In fact, almost nothing in "Top Girls" effectively compliments anything else—the strongest scenes and the weakest, the most effective actors and the least, they all sort of float independently of each other.

Any of them could work just as well if isolated from the rest of the play. But of course, this means the show as a whole hardly works at all.

"Top Girl's" best turn comes last when the centerpiece of Nina Ball's set—a column of frosted glass panes that pulses with light and color—breaks apart to reveal a new scene entirely, an utterly believable apartment interior that represents a different world from everything else.

Here, Marlene's head-to-head conflict with her working-class sister (Nafeesa Monroe) makes the stakes of her story clear for the first time. It's also simply the most direct and unflinching drama presented all night.

But while it's certainly wise to end on a high note, it's hard to kick the feeling that "Top Girls" would have been better if only it had this sort of clarity from the beginning.

"Top Girls" runs through October 13 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street. For tickets and information, visit ACT-SF.org

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