Theater review by Adam Feldman. City Center Stage II (Off Broadway). By Laura Marks. Dir. Gaye Taylor Upchurch. With America Ferrera. 1hr 30mins. No intermission.
The immaculate white kitchen where most of Bethany takes place seems, on its surface, perfectly ordinary. But surface is all it is; there’s nothing in the cabinets or the fridge when Crystal (Ugly Betty’s America Ferrera) arrives at night, having overcome the lock on a sliding glass door. She doesn’t live there, but neither does the house’s original owner—in the wake of the foreclosure crisis, the neighborhood is a ghost town—and the place still has electricity and water. Well-styled and dressed in a professional suit for her job at a Saturn dealership, Crystal does not look typically indigent, like the house’s other squatter, Gary (Tobias Segal), a wary conspiracy theorist accustomed to “living under the radar.” But in Laura Marks’s hard-boiled and timely new drama, Crystal and Gary are in the same leaky boat: homeless people in peopleless homes, the products of capitalist laissez-faire and laissez-tomber.
“When you have to struggle for food and shelter, just like we did millions of years ago, boom! You start getting your mind back,” says Gary. Although he is no expert on soundness of mind, the play illustrates the basic point he is making. Conventional ethics are a luxury beyond Crystal’s means; she is determined to recover her young daughter from the custody of the state, and needs the commission she could make by selling a car to Charlie (Ken Marks), a motivational speaker with dubious motives. (He preaches a Secret-like philosophy that speaks to the lure of magical thinking in a world of diminishing realistic options.) Directed with a sense of looming desperation by Gaye Taylor Upchurch for Women’s Project Theater, Bethany tests the limits of subsistence morality as it edges Crystal into an increasingly dark corner: What will she, or won’t she, do next? And the intrinsically likable Ferrera keeps you guessing all the way. Her acting is tinged with indication, but in this case that works to the play’s advantage. If Ferrera’s performance gives little sense of Crystal’s deeper backstory, that is appropriate for a character who can’t afford more than fronting.—Adam Feldman
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