Sunday, January 20, 2013

THEATER: It Could Happen to Anyone in "Bethany"

Crystal (America Ferrara) would like you to buy a new car, preferably within the next week. Because that's when her Saturn dealership is shutting down. And she works on a straight commission. Which she needs in order to buy window guards for the foreclosed home that she's illegally living in. In order to prove to Toni (Myra Lucretia Taylor) that she's financially stable enough to regain custody of her daughter. The car, says Crystal, is like a second skin -- you can even sleep in it, as she knows from experience -- but the skin that playwright Laura Marks is pitching here in Bethany is a much tougher one. (Crystal is fragile, the character is not.) The thick skin you need to  actually wrest down the American dream. There's a reason the powerful climax of Bethany is not in its confrontation, but in the cleaning-up that follows, a torturous albeit pine-scented affair, set to a final bit of "advice" from a manipulative motivational speaker Charlie (Ken Marks): "We all have the power to manifest our own reality."

The problem with reality is that we're not the only ones manifesting it, a fact that Crystal realizes when, after breaking into an abandoned home, she encounters Gary (Tobias Segal), a slightly unhinged fellow squatter. Moreover, it's hard enough to control our immediate surroundings: Crystal can truck in some furniture from the Salvation Army, stock the fridge with some basics, but that doesn't change any of the other identical dozens of abandoned houses on the block (artfully illustrated by set designer Lauren Helpern), or shelter her boss, Shannon (Emily Ackerman), from losing her job, too:

CRYSTAL: Did you talk to headquarters? Because all they have to do is find someone else to buy out the franchise, this is crazy--
SHANNON: H.Q. doesn't give two shits about it. They're busy trying to sell the whole company.
CRYSTAL: What? Who could they sell it to?
SHANNON: I don't know. Japanese.
So much for the idea of "personal potential," yet another particularly bitter grain of salt from the mouth of Charlie; that salt grows even courser after his harried wife, Patricia (Kristin Griffith), provides more insight into his character, or lack thereof. (He's less interested in Crystal's knowledge of the car's "features" and more about the "benefits.") Even Gary's survivalist instincts essentially revolve around dropping off the grid entirely and running from the government; it's a more extreme version of declaring bankruptcy, of abandoning one's home. For all the talk about Crystal achieving her more-and-more impossible dream -- we learn that she was twice Saleswoman of the Year at her old Ford dealership and, better yet, see her skills in action as she hard sells Patricia in a move that would make David Mamet proud -- the truth is not that succeeding is impossible, but that recognizing that dream, or still wanting it after paying the very dear price necessary to earn it, is.

This price has been well paid by director Gaye Taylor Upchurch. By so starkly contrasting the pretty words of a motivational speaker with the uglier actions of a motivated individual, Bethany has about as much wiggle room as Crystal herself. Ferrera pays for this, too: she's stuck playing desperation, and her moments of hesitation, panic, or regret are all compacted into a binary form of acting. Forces act upon Ferrara and her character; they both spend the play reacting, within limited means, and there are few real surprises, given the stakes. This isn't a discredit to them, or to their style; they're true to the world that Marks has created, and this team evokes the desired emotions. But there's a difference between producing an effect and being effective; Bethany is too underwater to ever truly move from the former to the latter.

Bethany (World Premiere)
by Laura Marks
directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch
produced by Women's Project Theater
January 11-February 17 (opened 1/20)

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