''If you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be?'' It's an oft-asked question in job interviews and a fitting jumping-off point for Caryl Churchill's time-traveling 1982 play Top Girls. The show opens with an exuberant dinner party at which a collection of historical and fictional female guests celebrate Marlene (Elizabeth Marvel) and her promotion to managing director of what else? an employment agency. The wine and conversation flow Churchill uses her trademark overlapping dialogue to detail their fights, sacrifices, marriages and the irony of Churchill's title becomes increasingly apparent: There's nothing ''girly'' about these women, and they're hardly on ''top.''
The dream-team ensemble of actors riff off one another seamlessly, fleshing out their unique characters along the way. Semi-baritone Martha Plimpton plays a ninth-century female pope with remarkable groundedness. Marisa Tomei subtly vacillates between comedic precision and fine-spun vulnerability as a Scottish explorer. Mary Catherine Garrison is Patient Griselda of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Jennifer Ikeda portrays a refined Japanese courtesan-turned-Buddhist nun. Ana Reeder delivers a dynamic monologue as the bullish Dull Gret, the figure in Brueghel's painting who battles against Hell. As the ladies untangle the sacrifices that bind them, the eternal question remains: Is it possible for women to have both a flourishing career and a fulfilling family life?
The playwright waits until a lethargic second act to offer any answers. Here, she shifts the action to Marlene's office in Thatcher-era Britain. She and her coworkers embrace the ideal that women must behave like men to succeed while denying help to their own gender's downtrodden in order to get a leg up. (This mindset may seem outdated a certain Sex and the City-inspired femininity seems more valuable on the corporate-ladder-climb these days but we still feel the underlying weight of Thatcher's rulebook in the workplace.) The short exchanges between the tough agency girls and their interviewees offer plenty of post-theater feminist-theory banter, but this act, highlighting the actresses' impressive range (many play multiple roles), oversimplifies the women who rise to the top, and those who are left behind like Marlene's sister, Joyce (Tomei, exhibiting a quiet strength).
It's in the third act that Top Girls truly hits home, bringing the siblings head-to-head in their blue-collared home town, where a dream-deferred Joyce argues with her high-powered sister about how to raise 15-year-old Angie (Plimpton, convincingly naive and surly), the daughter Marlene dumped on her years ago. In the end, regret and fear plague all three family members as Churchill reminds us that being at the top can be awfully lonely. There's nothing new there. But perhaps a country that continues to breed struggling Superwomen needs some reminding. (Tickets: Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200) A-