Hailey loves acting. Sweet and guileless, she doesn’t know Broadway is home to plays, as well as musicals. She is also as earnest in her love for her craft as she is genuinely talented — a combination that earns the freshman the coveted role of Lady Macbeth in her Minnesota college’s production. So, of course, all of the older girls resent her.
Sophie McIntosh’s “Macbitches,” having its premiere at the Chain Theater, throws Hailey (Marie Dinolan) and four upperclasswomen together for a tight 85-minute exercise in youthful ambition and the corrupting clashing of egos. It’s (thankfully) not a direct takeoff on Shakespeare’s tale of royal bloodlust, but rather a very funny, well-observed and finely acted dramedy about what it means to be a young woman in a B.F.A. program in a post-#MeToo world.
And it counts a revelatory star turn from Dinolan as its brightest point. As Hailey, she exhibits impeccable comedic timing that demands attention even when she’s in the background, staring at the bottom of her Cosmo with inebriated innocence. Not only can Dinolan play drunk well (tougher than you’d think), but she superbly inhabits her character’s inchoate ability to command a stage.
Or, in this case, a fraught celebration. The gathering, organized after casting notices have gone up, is held at Rachel’s (Caroline Orlando), the program’s now-former de facto lead. Hailey is invited over by Piper (Laura Clare Brown), an introverted sophomore who’s coming up against the limitation of her talent and is perhaps unaware of what the ingénue’s presence at this intimate get-together might do to her friends. The agitated Lexi (Natasja Naarendorp) and the dispirited Cam (Morgan Lui) certainly do not need her there.
McIntosh, the director Ella Jane New and their cast ably navigate these social hierarchies. Rachel is not a tyrannical, or even obvious, queen bee, but her lead turn in “Hedda Gabler” the year before ensures an unspoken air of achievement her friends can only admire. The way these students interact and move through Brandon Scott Hughes’s set — complete with “Hamilton” merch and posters from past college productions — feels real, seemingly informed by the cast’s own experiences among other actors rather than writerly necessity.
Yet it’s the interactions happening outside the room that provide the play with a relevant, weighty backbone it would be well without, but is leagues better for including. These young women, though confident and well-prepared, are still working in a world ruled by men.
Are their professors, who appraise their looks to determine their fitness for a role, supposed to mold them for the “real world,” or help them overcome its obstacles? How can you imbue a romantic scene with the power of instinct when the new norm of intimacy training necessitates planning? And is there any room for agency and ambition if your plan is sleeping up in an industry newly focused on power imbalances?
McIntosh evokes these questions astutely, never putting too fine a point on any of them, or turning her characters into mouthpieces. With a fantastic understanding of tone and genre, “Macbitches” juggles headier themes while remaining a lively college drama, a riff on both Shakespeare and “All About Eve,” and a showcase for Dinolan’s blazing charisma.
Through Sept. 10 at the Chain Theater, Manhattan; chaintheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.