Tobias Segal and America Ferrera

Laura Marks’ incisive new play, given a lovely, spare production by the Women’s Project, in residence at City Center, considers the stakes in a faltering economy for those middle-class workers who never imagined they’d somehow lose everything.  Set in 2009, in the darkest days of the recent recession, Bethany tracks the failing fortunes of a woman who’s lost her home, and through a quirk of administrative fascism, temporarily lost custody of her daughter, whose name also names the play.

Played by the talented America Ferrera as intelligent, wily, and deeply humane, Crystal works at a Saturn dealer selling cars that boast their American manufacturing pedigree and foist a cheerily forced sense of industrial family on prospective buyers.  Through carefully structured, cross-cut scenes, we see Crystal attempting to close a sale with Charlie, an oily motivational speaker who visits the dealership multiple times to consider the appropriate model.  The stakes for Crystal are high—she needs her seven percent commission to furnish a foreclosed home in which she’s squatting, so that she can persuade her social worker that she’s reestablished a secure domestic environment for her five-year-old, Bethany.

Marks forgoes conventional exposition, dropping us into Crystal’s plight as the play opens and we see her using a credit card to break into a house she presumes is empty.  After she leafs through mail that’s clearly not her own and looks in empty cabinets, trying the electricity to see if the refrigerator works, she’s startled by the appearance of Gary, a scruffy, bare-foot, slow-talking homeless man who’s already laid claim to the house.  The two circle warily, until they’ve reassured themselves and one another that they can make common cause by sharing the space.

[Spoiler alert!]

In one of Marks’s best moves, however, the play charts how Gary quickly becomes less of an ally, finally aligning with the other ideological forces against which Crystal has to struggle alone.  The economy threatens her already precarious livelihood; the state has taken her daughter and requires her to jump through ever-higher hoops to get the child back; and Charlie, the potential Saturn buyer, sees Crystal only through gender presumptions that allow him to expect sexual favors in return for a deposit on his car.

Gary, whose hold on reality is tenuous at best, fast presumes that Crystal will be part of his paranoid, anti-government scheme to live off the land and re-engineer DNA so that only the best specimens will be left to procreate and recreate the world.  When, in a bargain with the devil, Crystal succumbs to Charlie’s insistence that she have sex with him before he hands over his check, Gary is infuriated.  He destroys the kitchen, writes “whore” across the freezer door in his own excrement, and leaves a dead squirrel in the refrigerator for Crystal to find.  His conservative notions of gender become as oppressive to Crystal as the economic and social environment in which she’s forced to operate.

Gary really isn’t any worse than the other difficult personalities Crystal confronts as she tries to survive.  Charlie might be a snake, but we learn that he, too, is out of a job, and tries to rely on the magical realism of too-optimistic motivational pabulum to convince himself and others that people can get what they want just by willing it to be true.

Ferrera and Emily Ackerman, as Shannon

Shannon, Crystal’s boss at the dealership, is equally squeezed by corporate offices who suddenly announce that they’re closing this franchise.  Her sardonic, hard-shelled personality hides a basic resignation and doubt over whether she can pull herself through her life.  And when Patricia, Charlie’s unexpected wife, tracks Crystal down, only her insistent denial holds her together.  She confronts Crystal about her affair with Charlie, but pretends that her husband remains the hero she wants him to be, instead of a serial philanderer who can’t keep a job.

Taylor and Ferrera, as Crystal navigates the laws that Toni enforces

Toni, the supercilious, insidiously threatening social worker who wields the state-derived power to return Bethany to Crystal’s custody, enjoys her power over her client and has no problem holding Crystal to the letter of the law.  Crystal’s economic circumstances caused her to lose Bethany in the first place; when Crystal tried to find a place for them in a shelter, the authorities took Bethany away from her mother because they were sleeping in their car.  But despite her knowledge of Crystal’s straitened circumstances, Toni insists that Crystal pay to buy Bethany her own bed and to install expensive window guards, as the law requires.  Marks draws keenly the cruel absurdity of social systems supposedly established to advocate for poor people.  The unctuous, self-satisfied Toni becomes the perfect agent of the state, happy to exercise its power over people below her.

Bethany takes a surprising turn three-quarters of the way through that I won’t reveal here.  But although Crystal’s actions are shocking, they remain believable for a woman determined to hold on to the little she has.  Crystal becomes an admirable if melancholy heroine, whose quick thinking, physical daring, and willingness to compromise morals that are only a luxury, given her circumstances, help her survive.  She becomes a model of shrewd self-reliance, determined and courageous given the unresolvable conflict between an economy that makes subsistence nearly impossible and a social system that refuses to offer a safety net, instead only making it harder to keep families together and do what needs to be done.

The kitchen set is backed by a Levittown-like backdrop, evoking the "exurbs" of the small, unnamed American city in which the play takes place

Designer Lauren Helpern’s set evokes the sterile, echoing hollowness of an abandoned home as well as the absent presence of the elderly man whose house was foreclosed and is left empty for Crystal and Gary to squat in.  The production somehow signals that there’s always a third party present whose own loss enables Crystal and Gary to survive in the shelter of his shadow until the power company gets around to turning off the electricity.

Gaye Taylor Upchurch directs Bethany with swift assurance, keeping the short play moving and lean.  Ferrera’s focused, raw performance is complemented by a superb supporting cast.  Tobias Segal is convincing and strangely sweet (until he’s not) as Gary, finding various truths in a character who could be played as a caricature of a paranoid schizophrenic.  With his arrhythmic diction and his odd physical stance, Segal plays the man’s oddities but refuses to let the audience or the other characters to write Gary off as a maniac. His strangeness becomes increasingly unsettling instead of comic.

Ken Marks, too, as the would-be motivational speaker, Charlie, offers a character whose flawed masculinity seems social rather than personal.  That is, Charlie is a fake and a snake, but Marks clarifies that he’s also grasping to retain what he thinks should be his birthright as a man—to have sexual and social power that he can exercise at his whim.  That Charlie isn’t entirely successful makes the character pathetic but also reveals a social system in which economic strife upends gender as well as class presumptions.

Ackerman, Ferrera, and Griffith

The three supporting women are also superb.  Myra Lucretia Taylor, as Toni, the oppressive social worker, hits all the right notes, with the fake cheerfulness and fabricated warmth typical of a social system functionary who does her job for all the wrong reasons.  Emily Ackerman, as Shannon, Crystal’s boss, is comic but poignant as a woman who sees the end coming and can’t do a thing to save herself or her employees.  And Kristin Griffith, as Charlie’s deluded wife, Patricia, captures the fragility of a woman trying to pretend that her life isn’t falling apart at the seams.

Marks has a written a play that reminds me of Caryl Churchill’s ability to intertwine issues of gender and class and the economy.  Marks uses a stylized realism, while Churchill’s strategies tend to be Brechtian.  Bethany also reminds me of Suzan-Lori Parks’s Fucking A and In the Blood, in which her heroine, too (based on Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne), is prey to faceless ideological systems over which she can’t triumph.  Crystal seems her way through a desperate situation but Marks implies that another will surely follow. Her critique is vital and insightful, theatrical and resonant.

The Feminist Spectator

Bethany, New York City Center Stage II, February 2, 2013.

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