Crystal is a new kind of heroine for the stage: a mother, portrayed with shimmering humanity by America Ferrera (“Ugly Betty”), who is willing to sacrifice for her daughter Bethany in an economy that has marked her for extinction. The new drama “Bethany,” by Laura Marks (which opened Jan. 20 and closes Feb. 17), gives you an unsettling feeling that the lead character could be anyone, including you.
In a sentence, Crystal is in the middle of a rising s— storm, but her cool, calm exterior never betrays the internal, boiling turbulence. In truth, she cannot afford the luxury of unraveling when her victory, so hard earned, is so very close. She’s a saleswoman, and closing deals is the name of the game.
As the play opens, Crystal is without a home of her own and thus has been squatting in a recently foreclosed house. As luck would have it, the house still has running water and electricity.
She discovers she’s not alone, and is sharing her uncertain future with Gary (Tobias Segal), an unkempt and emotionally complicated stranger who has settled in the bedroom upstairs. Gary is a paranoid ranter who believes that capitalistic greed is going to give rise to a new and better nomadic culture. Sizing her up, Gary judges Crystal to be a perfect specimen to help repopulate the Earth.
Flight is not an option, since Crystal is flat broke. She has no other place to lay her head and to hatch her plans, which are to present a convincing, stable domestic situation to get a social worker’s official nod of approval and get her daughter, Bethany, back.
This young woman has razor-sharp focus, and nothing is getting in the way of her goal. Ah, a mother’s love is a mighty force. Her bad turn of events is not her fault. Due to severe economic turns, Crystal lost her job and her legal rights, landing her young child in foster care just a few blocks away.
Gary is helpful at first and willing to help her create her ruse, but his twitchy nature gives all the warning signs that time is running out for Crystal.
Obstacles continue to rise when she learns that her new job, selling Saturns, will soon end when the dealership closes.
Marks’ writing is character-rich and seems it would be as much at home in a novel as it would be in a feature film. A recent graduate from the Juilliard playwriting program, she paints a large canvas, packed with intricate details created by the power of her words.
There is no shining knight on the way to rescue her lead. Crystal is vulnerable, like an exposed clam jealously guarding a rare pearl. There are no hidden kindnesses, either; no paying it forward. She is in the center of greed and narcissism, all the while keeping her mask glued tight to her face.
Desperation is thick in the air as Crystal tries to close one last sale with a slow, cautious customer. The buyer who can save her day is Charlie–played with just the right touch of manipulative charm by Ken Marks, who is also the playwright’s husband–but he’s not ready to sign on the dotted line just yet. Good old everyman Charlie is also a salesman of sorts: a seller of dreams, a motivational speaker practicing the law of attraction.
The monologues he delivers are designed to delight and expose his underbelly. He might believe his own crap, which makes his good-guy exterior suspect. He is hiding something darker. When Charlie offers to drive Crystal home, after teasing her with dinner and drinks, under the ruse of finally buying the car, his true nature pops out. He is after sex, but he cloaks his true motive in “the secret laws of prosperity.” He wants quid pro quo. He wants to get laid, and the sale of the car is the implied reward.
Crystal is between a rock and a hard place, pressured from all sides. “Bethany” shows the dirtiest of laundry as this intelligent, sincere and hard-working woman struggles with the slippery slope of morality.
“I just want my daughter and my life back,” you can almost hear her scream, as she struggles to keep her game face on. There are moments when you want to rescue her. To stop the madness and give her a do-over. She deserves it. Hell, don’t all good souls, caught in traps not of their own design?
And then, the playwright turns a page so swift, I was observing with eyes wide open and mouth agape. Neither shut until the play ended.
Crystal. I’m going to keep your secret. Soul sister. My sister. There is a line from Marks’ lush work that is uttered by the character Shannon: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help [other] women.”
Performances, all around, do not disappoint. Ferrera has a magnificent gift. At ease onstage, she delivers velvet blows and dodges with a boxer’s agility. Another member of the cast who deserves at least a mention is Emily Ackerman, who brings a dry wit that is pitch-perfect to the play as Crystal’s brittle boss, Shannon.
Marks has created an enjoyable yet discomforting drama trotting out the economy as the most villainous of villains. She didn’t scrape away at the surface niceties of American life, she drilled a hole in the surface with an aim to hit the core. Brava, I say.
This is about survival of the fittest, where moral examination is a moot point. If no one witnessed it, did it happen at all?
“Bethany” is directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch with sets by Lauren Helpern; costumes by Sarah J. Holden; lighting by Mark Barton; sound by Leon Rothenberg; dramaturgy by Megan E. Carter; and fight direction by J. David Brimmer. Presented by Women’s Project Theater at the New York City Center Stage II, 131 W. 55th St. For more info, call 212-581-1212 or visit nycitycenter.org. Through Feb. 17. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.