It's a common conversation starter: If you could have dinner with any person living or dead, whom would you choose? That's the intriguing idea in the first half of Caryl Churchill's "Top Girls," a 1982 drama about the evolution of women's roles that's being staged by Fountainhead Theatre in Arlington.
Unfortunately, most of the women Churchill picks are insufferable egoists who drone on about who has suffered more. The worst of the group are Lady Nijo (Regina Aquino), a 13th-century Japanese courtesan turned nun, and Isabella Bird (Rosemary Regan), a 19th-century English travel writer, though Pope Joan (Callie Kimball), a 9th-century English transvestite who allegedly rose to the top of the Catholic Church, also gets in on the navel-gazing.
The only one who seems genuinely interested in the other women's stories is the host, Marlene (Lynn Audrey Neal), a modern-day manager of the Top Girls employment agency.
Meanwhile, Dull Gret (Kate Michelsen), the subject of a 16th-century painting, sits in armor at the fancy dinner table looking perplexed and occasionally making one-word contributions to the conversation. Patient Griselda (Charlotte Akin), a character in Renaissance literature, shows up later, but by that time you may have already tuned out. Topics such as religion and marriage are touched on in addition to each woman's personal battles, but each subject is approached with so many "I" statements that one's own eyes soon glaze over.
Worse, Churchill throws these little-known figures at the audience with no introduction; only Fountainhead's playbill explains their histories. Therefore, the play's first act is like being thrown into the middle of someone else's family reunion: Chitchat is made as if everyone's already familiar with one another, and the audience drowns in what amounts to one extended scene that's all dialogue and no action. Act 2 fares better, though audience members may have some difficulty discerning what it has to do with the play's introduction. The only obvious thread is Marlene, who is now shown interviewing clients at her office, though in the next scene we confusingly find two girls, Angie (Aquino) and Jeanine (Heather Haney), playing outside Angie's house while her mother, Joyce (Akin), sits inside.
What initially seems disjointed, however, is actually intricately woven. The play's contemporary second half echoes themes its historical figures broached in the first. The most obvious issue revisited is giving up children to achieve success. Taken on its own, Act 2 is a compelling mini-drama in which Angie's prospects and true parentage are in question. During the entire performance, Neal's Marlene is strong, confident and attention-grabbing, and, impressively, she just barely lets emotion crack through when the steps her character has taken to achieve success are challenged.
To their credit, the rest of the cast does an adequate job with what's here, with Kimball even pulling off a few laughs in her double-duty as Marlene's co-worker in the second half.
And Lynnie Raybuck's costumes are impeccable, with detailed period outfits in the first act and sharp red and black suits dominating the second.
Top Girls, by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Dorothy Neumann. Lighting, Jessie Crain; costumes, Lynnie Raybuck; sound, Randy Lancelot; set, George Lucas. Approximately 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Oct. 1 at Theatre on the Run, 3700 S. Four Mile Run Dr., Arlington. Call 703-920-5923 or visit www.fountainheadtheatre.com.