Since the latest financial crisis reared, some 4 million homes have been foreclosed upon. That's good news for Crystal (America Ferrera) . . . sort of. Sure, the struggling heroine of Laura Marks's Women's Project play, Bethany, may have lost her own house. But thanks to the plethora of deserted properties (and some amateur lock-breaking skills), she soon nets herself a new address.
Unfortunately, Crystal's chosen abode already has an occupant: Gary (Tobias Segal), a drifter with schizophrenic tendencies and some odd theories about the government and scrap metal. Still, if Crystal can disguise her squat as a cheerful suburban home and keep Gary from spooking the social worker, she has a chance of regaining custody of her five-year-old daughter, the titular Bethany.
At first, Marks's script seems merely a trenchant if rather worthy play about surviving in a beleaguered economic climate. Some early scenes ratchet up tension only to dissipate it too soon. But as the 90-minute running time advances, Marks stops pulling punches and starts landing them. The moral complexities grow trickier, the stakes higher, the consequences more dire. And this is when director Gaye Taylor Upchurch also does her best work. Upchurch, who has previously helmed a pair of Simon Stephens plays, has a real flair for showing nice-ish people in ethical extremis.
By Laura MarksCity Center Stage II131 West 55th Street212-581-1212, womensproject.org
In some ways, the hardworking Ferrera, with her dark brows and round cheeks, seems too placid for the role. Crystal claims to have won Employee-of-the-Month accolades at her car dealership, but she doesn't seem quite quick or clever enough for that. But this complacence makes the scene in which she shows an unexpectedly devious streak a pleasant surprise, and it adds verve to the drama's detour into violence.
Ferrera receives strong support from Emily Ackerman as her tart dealership boss and Myra Lucretia Taylor as a no-nonsense case worker. Segal does fairly well in a slightly ridiculous role, which requires him to rail against conspiracies and scrawl insults with his own feces. Ken Marks, the playwright's husband, seems at times too self-satisfied, but he clearly enjoys the smarmier aspects of his part as a motivational speaker.
This is the Women's Project's first season since having sold its albatross theater in the West 50s, so it's little wonder they favored a play about homes and homelessness. In Hebrew, the word "Bethany" means "house of misery" or "poor house." But don't let that etymology fool you. There are dramatic riches here.
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