By Laura Marks
Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
In Laura Marks’ “Bethany,” currently playing at the New York City Center Stage II, protagonist Crystal faces a series of important and life-changing decisions as she attempts to regain custody of her five-year-old daughter Bethany who has been taken from her after Crystal lost her job, her home, and was living with Bethany in her car.
Bethany is Crystal’s child’s name and – in Christian literature – a biblical village that was the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It is the village where Jesus lived after leaving Jerusalem and from which he purportedly parted from his disciples at the Ascension. In Aramaic ‘Bethany’ means ‘poor house’ or ‘house of misery.’ Crystal (America Ferrera) is a desperate and homeless mother’s name and an abbreviated name of an addictive and dangerous substance. Crystal is utterly addicted to her mission of getting herself out of the poor house and bringing herself and Bethany out of the misery that has been their house for far too long. And Crystal will achieve this goal at any cost.
And it is this cost and the conflicts that are generated by its parameters that drive the scintillating and sometimes disturbing plot of this rich, dark comedy which features a power house ensemble cast underpinned with perceptive and penetrating direction by Gaye Taylor Upchurch.
Laura Marks’ well-constructed and challenging script includes parallel universes of world views, value systems, and motivations. In “Bethany” these universes counterpoint in a house which has been foreclosed in 2009 during the subprime mortgage crisis. What occurs in that abandoned house challenges all pre-conceived notions of right and wrong, good and bad and other perhaps archaic boundaries of belief systems. Crystal breaks into a foreclosed home, befriends and befuddles the neurotic fellow-squatter Gary, bamboozles Shannon her sales manager at the failing Subaru dealership where she works, unabashedly uses Charlie the moribund motivational speaker, and manages to recruit his wife Patricia to fund her recovery.
Emily Ackerman’s Shannon shares her belief that “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women” when she feels Crystal stole Charlie as a customer from Tammy. But this skilled actor belies her character’s commitment to Crystal’s quest. Kristin Griffith unfolds a Patricia (Charlie’s wife) who conspires to rid herself of Crystal only to provide the funding Crystal needs to stay. Ken Marks’ creepy Charlie inadvertently gives Crystal the motivation she needs to survive his advances and Tobias Segal gives the audience a Gary that it loves and mistrusts from the first time he raises his two-by-four to defend his squatter’s space.
Perhaps most engaging and challenging is the pivotal relationship Crystal has with Toni the astute social worker assigned to determine whether Crystal has met all the requirements to regain custody of Bethany. In a pair of tour de force performances, Myra Lucretia Taylor who portrays Toni and America Ferrera who embodies Crystal with almost paranormal perspicacity conspire to create a new world of moral exactitude. During Toni’s last visit to Crystal in the home she knows deep in her soul is not Crystal’s, she overlooks obvious signs that there is something amiss in this house of horrors, including a broken sliding glass window that is clearly not opened by a proper key. Yet, obviously overworked and unappreciated, Toni approves Crystal’s appeal to regain custody and walks away saying, “Look at everything you’ve done. You’ve turned your whole life around.” Crystal replies, “I’d do anything for her.” And Toni finishes the conversation with, “I know you would.”
It is true that “Bethany’s” themes of self-determination and survival are relevant to men and women. However, “Bethany” is at heart and in spirit a play about and for women. Although fellow squatter Gary has many commendable philosophical ideas and supports Crystal in her anti-establishment route to equality, he misses the mark by not respecting Crystal’s right to determine what she does with her body and mind and with whom. The men in the play are simply foils to the work the women do to reclaim and maintain the power and authority necessary to survive.
“Bethany” challenges the audience to carefully examine the gray areas of decision making, the important expanse of moral ambiguity and to understand that there are no easy answers to the complex problems humankind faces. The best we can do is grapple with what we are given and commit ourselves to survival of self and survival of all that is important to us.