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Dorothy Chansky
A Woman's Fight for her Daughter "Bethany"

By Laura Marks
Women’s Theater Project
At City Center Stage II,
131 West 55th St.
January 11-February17
Tickets from $60 at www.womensproject.org or 212.765-1706

Women's Project Theater's Bethany by Laura Marks directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch -- L-R: America Ferrera and Emily Ackerman. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The first time I experienced a blackout in New York, I realized that we are pretty much all living on a network of life support. No electricity or no gasoline equals no food, or, after a while, much of anything else, including probably civility. I started fantasizing about walking across the George Washington Bridge with a backpack, toothbrush, hiking boots and a warm sweater in search of sustainability off the grid. In another vein, the millionth time I experienced angst about permanent employment, I passed a grungy trailer park and madly began crunching numbers in my head as to how much it would take to settle in there for the rest of my life, with expectations of a little more than a comfortable bed, electricity, and running water. I could subsist on minimum wage and my books, right?

Laura Marks’s new play, “Bethany,” takes place at the intersections of these two forms of fear and desperation. Under Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s efficient and purposeful direction, anxiety starts to pervade the entire atmosphere as interactions of the most banal sort (or so they would be on paper) unfold. Against the backdrop of Lauren Helpern’s good set (more on this later), a kind of tacky desolation merges with desperation and the sense that this can’t end well. But in a horrifying way it sort of does, depending on whom or what you’re rooting for. Whether this cup is half empty or half full is the question Marks dumps in our laps.

Bethany, who never appears in the play, is the five-year-old daughter whose mom, Crystal, is the centerpiece of this play set in what is called “the exurbs of a small city in America.” Crystal, played by America Ferrera with eight parts of warmth and generosity, one part street smarts, and one part lethal instinct, is fighting to regain custody of her child after the loss of their home and a few nights of living out of their car caused the authorities to take notice and put the kid in foster care. Crystal is employed at a car dealership, and she works all her charms trying to make a $32,000 sale to the well-heeled Charlie, a motivational speaker, as her 7% commission will get her back on her feet. Charlie, a good-looking but eerily predatory creep played to perfection by Ken Marks, is, unbeknownst to any of us, unemployed and in no position to buy a pair of roller skates, much less a Saturn sedan. Returning for test drives is his way of flirting and killing time.

Besides some ready cash, though, Crystal needs what the authorities will recognize as a stable home, and it is here that both the setting and the “gotta get off the grid” kick into high gear. Crystal finds an empty house in a newish development that seems itself almost totally abandoned. Designer Helpern’s generic kitchen (white appliances, nothing expensive) is backed by an image of the whole neighborhood—one house after another in grey, no people in sight, two cars only in driveways, and only the tiniest of trees. Some developer bulldozed a field or forest to make a fortune; some nexus of loans and an economy gone south have turned this into a ghost town. That Crystal constructs an image of safety and stability in this kind corpse of a latter-day Levittown is one of the ironies that I think Marks wants us to contemplate.

L-R: America Ferrera and Myra Lucretia Taylor. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The house is not actually empty. Crystal runs smack into a squatter, Gary, who is not hiding from the past so much as he is from the present. Enraged, paranoid, and just possibly in a tiny way right, Gary sees school as nothing more than social indoctrination into a “military industrial complex” (who knew that phrase was still in circulation?) that cannot sustain a population stuck in their consumer, dependent, anti-nature rut. Tobias Segal’s performance is by turns predatory, sympathetic, deranged, and pedestrian. If you met Gary on the street you would likely see a bum or a sleepy slacker. On his own turf (sorry—in his squatter digs) he may be precisely the madman who deserves to run the asylum. Gary’s answer to an uncaring financial and social system with a stranglehold on the everyday is to ask Crystal to go to the wilderness with him to sow “the seeds of a new society.” Needless to say, she demurs.

Instead, she puts all her eggs in the Charlie basket, undercutting her co-workers along the way, and prompting her bored, seen-it-all supervisor, Shannon (a jaundiced and nobody’s fool Emily Ackerman) to tell her that there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women. When Charlie’s wife shows up at the dealership to tell Crystal the score, a series of desperately improvised defensive moves occur in rapid succession. Telling any more would spoil the fun (if you can call it that, given the dire set-up), but Crystal does what she has to in order to survive. It’s not giving anything away to note that very early in the play Crystal tells Gary that forging a lease is a no-brainer, so we’ve been warned that this is a gal with a flexible scale of scruples.

The confluence of public and private—the house and the dealership are played in the same space and the neighborhood backdrop shadows both—is central to what Marks has on her mind. Upchurch and Helpern see to it that this concern is realized visually and spatially. The cast is uniformly persuasive. Costumes by Sarah J. Holden capture the class, aspirations, and expectations embodied by all the characters. My heart still starts beating faster when I think about how much I’d like to shake some of these characters and scream, “what were you thinking?” Whew. Time out. It’s just a play, right?

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