As I entered Theatre Pro Rata's production of "Top Girls," New Order's "Age of Consent" pulsated through the sound system — which was appropriate because it established the early-'80s setting of the play and because of its refrain, "I've lost you, I've lost you, I've lost you."
Director Carin Bratlie Wethern's production lost me in the crucial opening of Caryl Churchill's brutally funny drama from 1982. It's a tough scene to get right, a dreamy dinner party of women from different centuries whose overlapping snippets of rhythmic dialogue prepare us to ponder how a woman's success is defined. (Is "having it all" the only option?)
Without a trace of self-pity, they also share the shocking setbacks they've had to overcome simply to be recognized as human and worthwhile. The actors handle the language beautifully but the scene does not crackle like it must.
One of the diners is Marlene (Maggie Cramer), who has been promoted at her London employment agency, an apparent triumph that subsequent scenes will reveal costs her dearly, both on the job and at home. It's best not to reveal much about those costs because part of the fun of Churchill's play is figuring out what kind of play it is. A suspenseful thriller? A kitchen-sink melodrama? A blistering — and still relevant — howl at the unfairness of it all?
The first scene plants ideas and character arcs that recur in short, sharp scenes that rocket the play's momentum to the devastating finale. We meet Marlene's co-workers, her sister and her niece in crucial moments that skewer them dispassionately, like butterflies in a lepidopterist's collection.
Churchill has sympathy for the women, whose lives have been defined by centuries of injustice, but she doesn't let them off the hook for the difficult choices they've made. And her doubling of the roles creates illuminating connections — as, for instance, when Emily Rosenberg, who played a ferocious warrior in the opening scene, returns as Marlene's inarticulate niece, who is filled with anger she doesn't know what to do with.
Rosenberg is the standout in the nimble ensemble, which performs on a rectangular space with the audience on two sides. With synth pop and heinous sweaters signaling we're in the 1980s, it's a spare production, but that complements Churchill's brisk construction. The actors obey the fourth wall; they don't acknowledge us. But there is a sense that the playwright has summoned them and us to this space to figure out something together.
I was still figuring it out as her crisp dialogue bounced around my head while I drove home: "After I'm gone, they'll see what I've done for them," "I don't think he likes women," "The '80s are going to be stupendous" and this one, which comes early in the play but seems to forecast the next four decades and counting: "She's not going to make it."
Who: By Caryl Churchill. Directed by Carin Bratlie Wethern.
When: 7:30 p.m. Fri.-Sun. Ends Nov. 21
Where: Crane Theater, 2303 NE. Kennedy St., Mpls.
Protocol: COVID-19 vaccine or negative test within three days. Masks required.
Tickets: $16-$61 sliding scale, theatreprorata.org.