Making its Broadway debut in a handsome and beautifully acted production by the Manhattan Theatre Club, Caryl Churchill's 1982 play "Top Girls" proves as intellectually daring and dramatically unsatisfying as it was upon its premiere.

This partial fantasia centering on the rapacious female head of an employment agency no doubt will prove puzzling to the large contingent of subscribers who make up this theater's primary audience.

The most impressive section of the three-act play remains its daring first act, depicting a dinner party at an Italian restaurant being thrown by Marlene (Elizabeth Marvel) to celebrate her new promotion. The chief stylistic conceit concerns the nature of the guests, including such historical and imaginary female luminaries of the past as Pope Joan (Martha Plimpton); Isabella Bird, the famed Victorian-era explorer (Marisa Tomei); Lady Ninjo, a 13th century Japanese courtesan (Jennifer Ikeda); Dull Gret (Ana Reeder), the subject of a painting by Brueghel; and Patient Griselda (Mary Catherine Garrison), whose story is told in Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales."

The second act depicts the sometimes cruel goings-on at the agency while also introducing us to Marlene's mentally challenged daughter (Plimpton) who has been sent to live with her aunt (Tomei). And the third act is highlighted by a bitter confrontation between Marlene and her sister, in which the former's Darwinian political philosophy is expressed in brutally harsh fashion.

The playwright has important points to make about females in society and the then-corrosive social effects of Thatcher-era policies, but the effect is diffused by its fractured narrative and willfully difficult theatrical style.

The play, which features much mordant humor, is rendered with a taut, ominous atmosphere by director James Macdonald, and the performances by the outstanding ensemble, which also includes Mary Beth Hurt, couldn't be better.

Despite their efforts, though, "Top Girls" remains a diffuse, chilly work that is easier to admire than actually enjoy. (partialdiff)