Bethany: Theater Review

Tobias Segal and America Ferrera - Bethany - Off Broadway
Carol Rosegg
America Ferrera's complex and appealing performance is the saving grace of this problematic play strained by plot excesses.

America Ferrera stars in this dark off-Broadway comedy about a young single mother struggling to survive in the depths of the financial crisis.

It was a canny move casting America Ferrera in Laura Marks’ off-Broadway play about a young woman desperately struggling to survive the depths of the financial crisis. The young actress who endeared herself to millions of television viewers in the title role of Ugly Betty here makes her character fully sympathetic even as she resorts to the most extreme measures to regain what she’s lost.

And she’s lost a lot. The opening scene depicts Crystal (Ferrera), a car saleswoman on the brink of losing her job, breaking into an exurban home that’s been foreclosed and abandoned. There she encounters Gary (Tobias Segal), an eccentric squatter who’s already laid claim to the premises but is willing to share.

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Crystal needs to appear to live in the house in order to regain custody of her five-year-old daughter Bethany, who she lost to social services after they were discovered living in her car. This requires an elaborate deception for the benefit of the social worker (Myra Lucretia Taylor) assigned to the case.  

Fueling Crystal’s hopes for a financial rebound is an impending sale of an expensive new car to Charlie (Ken Marks), a slick-talking motivational speaker with a quasi-spiritual line of patter. Taking a shine to the eager young saleswoman, Charlie stretches out the decision-making process to an uncomfortable degree. One that becomes especially uncomfortable when he makes it clear that he won’t sign on the dotted line unless Crystal goes to bed with him.

To describe what happens next would be to spoil the narrative surprises of this dark comedy exploring just what lengths seemingly good people will go when pushed to the edge. But while the play is thoroughly engrossing during the course of its taut 90 minutes, it’s also never quite convincing in its strained, gothic plot extremes. It particularly unravels in its later scenes involving Crystal’s tense encounters with Charlie’s wife (Kristin Griffith) and the newly outraged Gary.

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Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch provides an intense staging that is all the more impressive for being performed in such intimate confines. Also making a pivotal contribution is fight director J. David Brimmer, who manages to make a key violent scene horrifyingly visceral. The supporting ensemble brings their unsavory characters to vivid life. But it’s Ferrera who truly makes the play work to the extent that it does. She’s so effective at conveying her character’s complex mixture of strength and heartbreaking desperation that you find yourself rooting for the determined Crystal even as she descends into a moral abyss.

Venue: NY City Center Stage II, New York City

Cast: America Ferrera, Emily Ackerman, Kristin Griffith, Ken Marks, Tobias Segal, Myra Lucretia Taylor

Director: Gaye Taylor Upchurch

Playwright: Laura Marks

Set designer: Lauren Helpern

Costume designer: Sarah J. Holden

Lighting designer: Mark Burton

Sound designer: Leon Rothenberg

Presented by Women's Project Theater