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Theater Review (NYC): ‘Bethany’ by Laura Marks, Starring America Ferrera

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A dominating performance by America Ferrera (best known for the U.S. version of TV’s Ugly Betty) centers this incisive and gutsy new play, astutely directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch.

The action begins somewhere near Beckett territory, with two unknowns encountering each other for initially unknown reasons in an abandoned house in a quiet exurb. Under flat, colorless lighting, the kitchen counter, dishwasher, and fridge look almost like mere sketches of those objects.

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Soon enough, our awareness brightens as the situation darkens for Crystal (Ms. Ferrera), a poised and even charming young woman who has lost her home and more, but whose desperation becomes apparent only over time. This well-put-together and seemingly quiet woman has arrived to squat in a house that turns out to have a denizen already, an apocalypse-minded revolutionary spirit named Gary (in a wily and comical performance by Tobias Segal).

The time is early 2009. The foreclosure crisis is in full swing, but it’s also near the end of the line for Crystal’s employer, the Saturn Corporation, which audiences may know pulled the plug on its last dealerships the following year. Crystal is a good salesperson who can talk her way through a lot, but will she be up for, and capable of, the more extreme measures that may be called for?

One of these measures involves the middle-aged Charlie (Ken Marks), a potential car buyer who is also perhaps the most deliberative motivational speaker you’ll ever meet. His practice sessions in front of a fourth-wall mirror provide an ironic counterpoint to Crystal’s real-life woes; while Charlie spouts pablum about how you can achieve anything you want as long as you’re open to it and have the right attitude – not to mention the insanity that “God wants you to be rich” – Gary provides Crystal with paranoid survivalist rhetoric about how “small nomadic groups have the best chance – we’ve got the seeds of a new society.”

From its minimalist beginning the story builds slowly and evenly to a savage climax, but the measured script and Ms. Ferrera’s nuanced performance ensure one never stops rooting for Crystal, whose motives are understandable, even pure. At the same time one remains aware of the morally suspect nature of her actions. And the play’s sparse atmosphere – both in stage terms and rhetorically – never thickens much, lending it a consistent lucidity. Abetted by an excellent supporting cast that also includes Myra Lucretia Taylor (thoroughly convincing as a sympathetic, overworked social worker) and Emily Ackerman (providing comic relief as Crystal’s smarmy boss at the car dealership), Ferrera and Upchurch burnish Marks’s thought-provoking play to a jewel-like shine – almost like a brand-new Saturn.

Bethany is at City Center II.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.