Would you buy a car from America Ferrera? In the lead role in Laura Marks’s new play, Bethany, the star of the sweetly campy TV hit Ugly Betty has a tough pitch to make. Not only does her character, Crystal, have to fob off a Saturn sedan on Charlie, a lecherous motivational speaker who can’t keep his hands on the wheel. Ferrera must also get audiences to follow Crystal’s circuitous and often unadmirable path around severe economic hardship, single motherhood and a possibly psychotic housemate.
“Crystal needs to be somebody who’s instantly appealing, because she is forced to make morally complicated choices, and we really need to have somebody that you can root for,” explains director Gaye Taylor Upchurch (Bluebird, Harper Regan). “Two seconds around America, and you understand she’s somebody whose side you want to be on.”
Indeed, it may be precisely because the charming, self-possessed Ferrera has tended to play upbeat and entirely sympathetic characters—breaking through at age 17 in the film Real Women Have Curves—that the cracks in Crystal appealed to her. “She’s a really fantastic female character who gets to mess up and not be likable all the time and feel really human,” Ferrera notes before a recent rehearsal. What’s more, she says, Crystal’s struggles with foreclosure and foster-care bureaucracy “really resonated with me on a personal level, on a cultural level, and on a political level—with what the feeling is right now in this country.”
Like Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit, Marks’s play depicts an exurban nowhere in which hard-up characters either cling to the bottom edge of the middle class or desperately fake it. The deception is often as internal as it is public; the play’s title page includes a quote from the late composer Lukas Foss: “Do you know the definition of charisma? Believing in your own bullshit!”
“It’s always a question of, Well, if you really believe it, then is it a con?” Ferrera agrees, comparing the occupational unreality of acting to the operational mendacity Crystal deploys to negotiate her precarious life. But if sometimes Crystal lies to herself, in the form of practiced self-help tropes like “God wants you to be rich,” in real life, Ferrera approves of a certain amount of positive thinking. That’s at least part of what drove her, as the youngest of six children raised in California’s San Fernando Valley by a single mom from Honduras, to pursue her career so single-mindedly.
“Things were tough, and I had no right to believe I would achieve what I wanted to achieve, other than that I was told my whole life I could do anything,” Ferrera recalls. “The difference between a successful child and an unsuccessful child is how many things in their life have affirmed that they are worthy of what they want. So I do believe in optimism, in dreaming, in seeing something you want and going for it.”
But in the gap between hoping for the best and feeling entitled to success falls many a cockeyed optimist. Crystal’s can-do spirit notwithstanding, Ferrera is happy to go there. “What was really enticing about this play was that it challenged me,” the actor says. “I’m a first-generation American, and a big part of why my parents left their home and came here was the American Dream; that’s what I’ve been fed from the time I was born” (after, apparently, she was given her patriotic first name).
But with freedom comes “the right to say, ‘The American Dream is bullshit,’ ” Ferrera adds, citing the reality-checking economic reporting of Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch). “There are all these fascinating conversations that I would love to have a part in.”
So does Ferrera only take work with a social agenda? Her two iconic roles, in Real Women and Ugly Betty, handily shattered stereotypes about female appearance and ethnicity. “I don’t take on a role to say, Oh I can’t wait to show them; I can’t wait to challenge what people think,” she says. Still, she concedes that with Bethany, “the hope is that the audience comes away feeling very torn.” Forget the car; would you buy ambivalence from this sunny America?
Bethany is at New York City Center through Feb 17. Click here for tickets.See more in Theater.