It is not until the last 15 minutes of Sophie McIntosh’s new play, macbitches, that a dramatic event takes place. Up until then the play is mostly the chit chat of acting majors talking about productions they have been in, eccentric directors they have worked with at the college, rehearsal horrors, and theater experiences elsewhere. While this has some interest for theater buffs, it goes on too long and tends to be more and more of the same. If you know such shows as The Drowsy Chaperone, The Crucible, Hedda Gabler, Antigone, Guys and Dolls and Macbeth very well you may be able to follow the gossip. If not, you may grow very bored by all the anecdotes. There is some talk of the toxic environment of male-run academic departments but very little of it makes much of an impression. We never hear what the male acting students think of the department or its practices, only their bad behavior in rehearsal.
The play begins with an interesting premise: a group of upper-class acting majors at a Minnesota university invite Hailey, the freshman newbie who was shockingly just cast as Lady Macbeth in the department’s fall production, to party at the apartment of roommates Rachel and Lexi. All five of the partygoers have been cast in the show but three of them were vying for the role of Lady Macbeth, particularly Rachel who had the lead role in the previous year’s Hedda Gabler.
What the naïve Hailey doesn’t know is how jealous they all are, particularly the seniors who are running out of chances to add to their resumés. As they attempt to get her drunk and spill stories about the other freshmen in her class, it becomes obvious that she doesn’t know much about them. This should lead to rising tension but unfortunately that is not the case. McIntosh at this time in her career does not seem to know about creating suspense which actually never occurs. The shocking ending has little to do with the initial premise.
As directed by Ella Jane New, director of the Chain Playwriting Lab, the cast create very different female students, though the script does not give most of them a through line and there is almost no dramatic action until the final scene. As the queen bee of most of Professor Arik’s productions, Caroline Orlando as Rachel is statuesque, shapely, self-possessed and knowledgeable. Her roommate Lexi played by Natasja Naarendorp appears to harbor some grudge and seems to be a volcano about to go off. Laura Clare Browne’s Piper, a sophomore mentored by Rachel, has identity issues, as well as having had a very repressive Christian upbringing which she is having trouble dealing with. As the depressive Cam, Morgan Lui is having love problems with her off-stage girlfriend. Marie Dinolan is amusing as Hailey, totally inexperienced but desperately trying to fit in. She also has no self-knowledge nor does she realize what the others think of her.
Brandon Scott Hughes has created an attractive modern apartment for this one-set play with many theater posters and playscripts scattered over the living room. The pink area rug under the black sofa, purple armchair and brown leather chair is most theatrical. Sydni Rivero’s costumes define each of the characters: Hailey in an eye-catching red one-piece outfit; Rachel in a very low cut black tank top and tight blue jeans; Piper in a baggy rust-colored sweater and high boots; Cam in a man’s plaid flannel shirt and reversed baseball cap, and Lexi in a blue denim jacket over a purple college tee-shirt and purple workout pants. The lighting by Michael Abrams keeps the levels suitably high for the party scene until the evening ends and the characters scatter to go off to sleep. The convincing fight direction by Leana Gardella leads to the only dramatic action of the evening.
Playwright McIntosh has an excellent ear for how people speak but she does not differentiate the dialogue of her characters so that their lines could easily be redistributed in many cases. (It is difficult to recall who said what as a result.)The hard-working cast keeps the play afloat even when it appears that nothing is happening, and director New keeps their primary traits front and center. The play starts and ends well but there is that middle section where we await the rising action but are instead given a talk fest of acting students’ memories.
macbitches (through September 10, 2022)
The Chain Theatre, 312 W. 36th Street, 4th Floor, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.chaintheatre.org
Running time: one hour and 35 minutes without an intermission