America Ferrera and Emily Ackerman in a scene from Bethany
(Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)
What would you do if you had lost your house to foreclosure? And were working strictly on commission while you had no savings in the bank? And your daughter had been taken away by Social Services as you could not provide a safe environment? This is the situation for Crystal in Laura Marks’ taut and exciting new play, Bethany, being given its world premiere by the Women’s Project Theater. America Ferrera, Emmy and Golden Globe Award winner for the title role of ABC’s Ugly Betty, returns to Off Broadway for the first time since February 2006, and in a role that requires her to appear on stage almost entirely throughout the play (with just enough time to change costumes), she demonstrates that she is a fine stage actress capable of commanding attention at all times.
Critics often bemoan the fact that there are very few American plays seemingly ripped from the headlines. Instead native plays tend to be dysfunctional family relationship dramas which seem mostly to cover the same territory. The big issues of the day tend to be ignored by American dramatists, probably writing stories from their own personal experiences. In Bethany, Marks has written a riveting play that is as fresh and contemporary as tomorrow’s headlines. She has avoided the pitfalls of preaching or being tiresome about her message, in this case, how far would you go to protect your daughter.
When this dark comedy set in 2009 begins, Crystal is breaking into a foreclosed suburban house which she thinks is empty. Having chosen this place because the electricity is still on, she needs a home to show social services in order to get back her five-year-old daughter Bethany. Unfortunately, the house is not empty and Crystal finds herself sharing it with unstable squatter Gary who is afraid of going out but is self-sufficient in the ways of survival. Now Crystal has to enlist him in her plan to get back Bethany.
However, life is not easy for Crystal. Her current job is as a saleswoman working at a Saturn car dealership, but she is informed by her boss Shannon that it is closing at the end of the week. In walks creepy motivational speaker Charlie who claims to be in the market for a car. Crystal has only a few days in which to get him to sign on the dotted line for an expensive sedan that will give her a big commission. There isn’t anything Crystal wouldn’t do to get back her daughter and as her life spirals out of control, she has some difficult decisions to make.
Tobias Segal and America Ferrera in a scene from Bethany
(Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)
Ferrera’s natural cheerfulness and good spirits hold her in good stead as she negotiates the life of a single mother in a recession while at the bottom of the financial barrel but still able to hold up her head. Dressed in a series of tailored business suits with matching high heels from designer Sarah J. Holden, Ferrera is the picture of success - though it is all on the outside. Never does her façade crack until the play’s surprising and wrenching denouement.
As briskly and shrewdly directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch (who fulfilled a similar function on Atlantic Theater’s Harper Regan), Ferrera is different with each of the people in her life. Her relationship with Tobias Segal’s deranged Gary calls for quick thinking and a great deal of psychology. With Emily Ackerman’s amusingly acerbic boss Shannon, Ferrera is up to her eyeballs with inventiveness. Dealing with Myra Lucretia Taylor’s smooth and motherly social worker brings forth her beleaguered optimism as the stakes become ever higher based on bureaucracy and red tape. Her negotiations with Ken Marks’ unsettling customer call for flirtatiousness and sex appeal. And pacifying irate wife and mother Patricia (played by the ever-reliable Kristin Griffith) calls for her ability to lie convincingly through her teeth.
Lauren Helpern’s generic kitchen setting requires that the Saturn dealership to be played on the apron of the stage, allowing the play to move swiftly along without set changes. Both Mark Barton’s lighting design and Leon Rothenberg’s sound design add immeasurably to the sense of tension and menace inherent in the play.
Playwright Laura Marks who has just graduated from the Juilliard School and has recently been accepted as a member of New Dramatists proves she is already an accomplished playwright who is able to respond to current issues. Bethany gives America Ferrera a bravura role which she turns into a star turn. It is to be eagerly hoped that after Bethany both Ferrera and Marks will be back on the New York stage very soon again.
Bethany (through February 17)
Women’s Project Theater at New York City Center Stage II, 313 W. 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.NYCityCenter.org
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission