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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Crystal (America Ferrera), the hotshot young car salesperson has joined the masses of those fighting for survival more recently, but her situation is even more desperate than Gary's. She's still working (though strictly on commissions in a tough market, but has lost her home and lost her custody of her 5-year-old daughter, the play's never seen title character.
In a New York season awash in revivals taking us back to past eras of American life, Bethany is a refreshingly timely look at present day America. With America Ferrera in the leading role, this Off-Broadway premiere also boasts a star with considerable box office appeal (most notably as the far from ugly Ugly Betty. She happens to be terrific.
While Bethany is billed as a dark comedy and does have its share of laughs, this behind the headlines look at the fallout of long-term unemployment and a newly impoverished and often homeless middle class is very dark and depressing indeed. Actually, it's essentially a morality tale, using the stresses of the Great Recession with it's all too close resemblance to the Great Depression, to explore how desperation can make us act in ways contrary to what we know to be the right thing. But being a playwright and not a preacher, Ms. Marks has fashioned her story as a thriller and she does indeed ratchet up tension and suspense.
The basic setup has the earmarks of a totally unbelievable story line: Two strangers — Crystal, the very average, attractive single mom and Gary, the oddball loner with an anti-everything philosophical bent, have both staked out an foreclosed house in which the lights are still running as a temporary shelter. Instead of getting out of there as fast as her high heeled red shoes can carry her, Crystal chooses to believe Gary's assurance that he's not dangerous and stays as his housemate.In fact, she relies on him to help her carry out her desperate scheme to regain custody of her child.
Crystal's plan involves her making the empty house look occupied in time for a visit from a social worker who will or will not sign off on the return of her daughter. With abundant real life stories of people indeed becoming squatters in abandoned houses, living in cars, shelters, motels it is sadly not totally beyond belief that a middle class woman like Crystal could find herself homeless and that long-term hobo types like Gary, would seize on the foreclosure situation as a means of living indoors. Nevertheless, Bethany does require some willingness to suspend disbelief.
Lauren Helpern's two-tiered but basically all in one set allows the action to shift between the kitchen of the foreclosed house that Crystal and Gary occupy and the Saturn car dealership where she works, as well as a platform for several audience addressing monologues by Charlie (Ken Marks) the motivational speaker who's also her most promising customer for a big sale. The kitchen area which dominates the stage is furnished with the usual nuts and bolts counters, cabinets and appliances. However, it has no walls except for a sliding door and a window with a back panel with images of the empty surrounding houses to suggest the once populate development. The other interactions take place on an unfurnished area a step below. Costume, sound and lighting designers have also done good work.
There's plenty to maitain nonstop tension and suspens about how everything will turn out. For starters there's the question of whether Gary is really harmless. Then there's Charlie (Ken Marks-- the same last name is no coincidence. He and the playwright are married) the motivational speaker and potential source for a much needed hefty commission. His speeches and the way he comes on to Crystal somehow makes your skin crawl whenever he's on stage. Gary is strange, but the well dressed and apparently successful Charlie is Mr. Creep big time.
Adding to the the play's edge-of-the-seat elements, there's Crystal's obnoxious supervisor Shannon (Emily Ackerman) to make her life even more difficult and the visits of Toni (Myra Lucretia Taylor), the over worked social worker. Is she really going to buy into Crystal's facade of having arranged a safe home for her child?
As directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch the various tensions are built at just the right pace. and the actors allowed to make the most of silent as well as spoken moments. Ferrera, as already mentioned, is terrific in the exhausting, always on role of the desperate young woman whose super sales skills haven't kept her from falling into the American Dream-turned-nightmare abyss.
Ferrera has a fine partner in Tobias Segal who manages to make the young drifter almost likeable, yet with an ever present potential to have strangeness turn violent.
The entre ensemble is excellent. That includes Kristin Griffith as Patricia, a middle-aged woman who arrives late in the story for a single scene. Unfortunately, while she clarifies what makes the creepy Charlie tick, the Crystal-Patrica plot development comes off as forced and lacking in credibility.
It's in the last part of the play that Bethany suffers most from credibility lapses — including little things like china plates thrown on the floor but not breaking. And, while the final challenge to Crystal's moral resiliency and Gary's normalcy make for a bang-up finale, it leaves one wishing Ms. Marks had found a less contrived solution and managed a more conclusive ending. But then no one has yet found a conclusive ending for the changes that have befallen Americans like Crystal and all the other characters in this play.
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