When living in an abandoned house, be sure to choose your fellow squatters with care.
That's just one of the cautionary lessons in Laura Marks' edgy new drama, "Bethany." The dark tale of how far a desperate woman might go when pushed to the brink, starring America Ferrera, opened Sunday night in a suspenseful, well-acted world premiere by Women's Project Theater at their new off-Broadway location, New York City Center Stage II.
Ferrera's warm, perky performance as Crystal is critical to the credibility and success of the play, which goes to some dark places. A car saleswoman down on her luck in the tanked economy of 2009, Crystal is battling social services to get her daughter back after losing her home. Along the way she makes some unsettling choices and risks losing the support of the audience, but Ferrera's stirring enactment and the hopeful determination she gives Crystal generally keep sympathy on her side.
To fool her case worker, Toni, (Myra Lucretia Taylor, briskly impersonal) into thinking she has a new home, Crystal breaks into a recently abandoned foreclosure house. Along with electricity and running water, the place already has a squatter, a rambling, paranoid, pleasant-seeming young man named Gary (Tobias Segal). Segal skillfully makes Gary likable, yet just weird and intense enough to keep the audience off-balance. Crystal uses her sales psychology skills to enlist him in her deception.
Gayle Taylor Upchurch raises the tension gradually, with nuanced direction and careful pacing of each scene, some without dialogue. Only a very extended "out, damn spot" scene feels too long, although it gives the audience time to absorb the extent of Crystal's desperation and long-repressed anger.
Gary provides a lot of humor with his off-the-grid, anti-government philosophy and doomsday predictions. Playwright Marks has given him with plenty of zingers, as when he refers to their neighborhood filled with foreclosed and abandoned homes as "a drywall junkyard." Comical appearances by Crystal's boss, Shannon, (Emily Ackerman, jaded and supercilious) also lighten the mood.
An increasingly creepy potential car purchaser is motivational speaker Charlie, (Ted Marks, oozing untrustworthiness that Crystal is oblivious to). His unctuous pronouncements about "making wealth flow to you" contrast sharply with the harsh economic realities and rising unemployment referenced in the play.
When Charlie's wife shows up to confront Crystal about her husband's daily visits to the dealership, Crystal attempts to use her psychological skills to turn the negative encounter to her advantage. Kristin Griffith is taut and touching as angry wife, Patricia, who may or may not fall for Crystal's final con.