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Wise "Girls"

Date: May 13, 2008


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"I read the play 25 years ago, and I was lost," Mary Beth Hurt admits of Top Girls, the contemporary feminist classic by the English playwright Caryl Churchill currently enjoying a first-rate revival at the Biltmore. "I was pleased to have a chance to address it again."

Hurt, who may be best known to filmgoing audiences for definitive film performances of decades ago (Chilly Scenes of Winter, The World According to Garp, Interiors) but who has racked up an impressive list of theatrical credits as well (Tony noms for Crimes of the Heart, Trelawney of the Wells, Benefactors), appears in dual roles in Churchill's sprawling yet intimate consideration of how far women have, and haven't, come through the ages. In the bravura opening act, in which Marlene, a dashing English career woman (played by the aptly named Elizabeth Marvel) hosts an electic dinner party of notable females from throughout world history--a female pope, a Japanese concubine, a Victorian traveler, a Chaucerian princess, a Breughel warrior--Hurt has the wordless, droll role of a waitress charged with serving this motley assembly, the members of which do bring some unheard-of items for the coat check.

"I quite enjoy playing the waitress," Hurt says. "I never actually was a waitress, so I'm proud of myself every time I can carry three plates to the table."

Table service isn't the most challenging thing about the play, though: Its three disparate acts consider the status of women in early Thatcher-era England, and it does so with often elliptical, fragmented and overlapping language that owes something to Harold Pinter. Indeed, as in Pinter, it is often the words that are unsaid that speak loudest.

For instance, in a scene in which Hurt plays Louise, a wizened 46-year-old office employee who is interviewed for a spot at the Top Girls employment agency, Louise begins a sentence, "I sometimes think…," before she's cut off by her interlocutor, a curt young woman tellingly named Win (played by Jennifer Ikeda). Has Hurt thought about what Louise would say if she weren't interrupted?

"I think the rest of the thought is, 'I should have been born later,' " Hurt reasons. "Just as there begins to be a connection between these two people, Win says something hurtful."

Louise's inclusion in the midst of mostly younger women is an important reminder of the scale of recent social change--and its costs.

"Louise has missed the boat on the women's movement, and gave up more than she had to in order to get where she is," Hurt says. "She's competing with women who are 30 who grew up in a different climate, so there's resentment, in effect. But what I find so interesting about Churchill's writing, it's not angry or bitter. It's more of a feeling of, What happened here? These younger women grew up in a different climate than Louise did, and they take their lives for granted. But when Louise was beginning in the corporate world, there were more things you had to give up at that stage."

Does Hurt, the eldest of Top Girls' stellar cast--which also includes Marisa Tomei and Martha Plimpton--see the same divide in her business, show business?

"Well, most playwrights are still men," Hurt points out. "I think that for the last hundred years, at the very least, and maybe the last 500, it's been a patriarchal setup. Any kind of change takes a long, long time. There have been remarkable changes over the past century."

One of the thornier, more ironic changes of the last few decades has been that as women's agency and independence has increased, so has their complicity in the very system that once kept them down.

"Women also take part in this," Hurt points out. "There was a time when all of the blame sort of went on men, because they're the first most obvious target. But women support the system, as well. That's something that is addressed in this play, and it was written at a time when this began to be addressed in the first place. Eve now, if I go to a movie, I want to identify with Gwyneth Paltrow, when I should be identifying with Blythe Danner."

Indeed, there's a fresh relevance to Top Girls, which Churchill wrote as Thatcher and Reagan were just beginning to usher in a new age of conservative ascendancy. That age may or may not have reached exhaustion, depending on who you talk to. But the issue of gender and power are being tested anew, not least with the persistent presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

"There's a lot that's changed, but the frightening thing is that a lot of it remains the same," Hurt says of the play. "That's really what makes it interesting to look at now. You can see the progress that women have made, but you can also see the same deep physiological and psychological questions that still face women. It looks what you are driven to do, and I don't think unhappily, necessarily--the idea of having children and how you raise them, and how all of the women in the play, in various ways, deal with the birth of a child, or in the way not having a child affects their life."

Anticipating the suspicion that the play may be nothing but a feminist polemic, Hurt is quick to add, "I don't believe this play is a rant in any way, or anti-male. I think it's against the imbalance between the haves and have-nots. It's a perfect rumination on the choices that women have because they're women, but it's not about how they're unhappy because they aren't men."

With her long and distinguished acting resume, surely the seasoned Hurt brought a special wisdom to the rehearsal room.

"I wish I did," she says self-effacingly. "It’s always a tabula rasa for me; each role is a new beginning, a new concern--will it be all right this time? Can I find the note that this character plays in the melody of the show? I’m aware of being the senior member of the cast; I don’t know if that gives me any status."

She needn't sell herself short. Hurt has found precisely the right notes for the waitress and Louise, and they, like the play itself, resonate long after the house lights come on.

Click here for more information about Top Girls.