In the past few years across America the past few years have been hard economically. People who thought they were following the rules have watched the mortgage crisis and arrogant financiers wipe away the physical and emotional foundations of their lives. Bethany focuses upon one such person and her struggle to get her daughter, the title character, back. Well told and well acted, the production spends more time in the world inhabited by the hoi polloi than most of what is currently playing on the larger stages of the city. It is that rare New York production in which a play that will probably do better with regional audiences, is given the talent and production values it deserves on a New York stage.
The play focuses sharply on Crystal, who thanks to the mortgage crisis has lost her house and thus custody of her daughter, Bethany. She is trying to qualify to regain custody of her daughter and the lengths to which she will go drive the narrative. She tenuously inhabits a house that no one wants or can afford in a development that no one wants or can afford. Her job is selling cars that it also seems no one wants or can afford. There is apparently no one in her life to whom she can turn for support and in our transient modern world that is perhaps more often the case than people realize. And so, Crystal does whatever the moment demands in an existence where short term goals are all she can possibly afford and that limitation may just destroy everything of worth to her.
The piece avoids being any sort of clichéd, movie-of-the-week dealing through its deft characterizations and some strong divergences in point of view. Interestingly when she is with other women, the character is more direct and assertive in how she communicates. In a gloriously compact scene, she is confronted by the upset wife of a potential customer, (poignantly played by Emily Ackerman) and both women in essence duel for that which is essential to them. Also at the car dealership Crystal has pointed exchanges with her boss, (the sharply specific Kristin Griffin), in which an entire female code of moral behavior is set out and against which she is judged. A more understanding ear, although equally demanding, is offered by the social worker on her case (Myra Lucretia Taylor) who sets the rules for custody. Accordingly Crystal is more cautious with her, but does express her frustration and allow her anger to show throw.
This energy is in sharp contrast to her behavior around men, which is infinitely warier. Perhaps that tells us more about her past and Bethany’s father than we are told within the text. Two world views are offered by the men in this piece and in the face of both, Crystal is equally unsure and duplicitous, unable to trust either. The itinerant, (well portrayed by Tobias Segal), posits a world in which one must resist The Man and remove oneself from the city and its evils. He speaks almost coherently and it appears that she is finding a way to cohabit with his insanity, at least momentarily. The potential car buyer, who also is a self help guru (the talented Ken Marks plays the creepy factor just on the edge of questionable behavior), positions the world as a place in which you can have control but must take it. Both present themselves as having answers. Both have power over things that Crystal desperately needs. And in her dealings with both, she seems almost a deer in the headlights until it becomes clear that she is negotiating a world that changes terms on her constantly. These terms are not something she can ignore but not something that she trusts knowing the nuances underneath. It juxtaposes sharply against the surety with which Crystal interacts with other women and fascinates.
The toll of all this caution and uncertainty ultimately push Crystal to an action that seems to have absolutely no repercussions at all, which is disturbing but does definitively end the play. It is a tough spot for the piece to end but does throw the idea of “happy ending” and what that means or costs into question. While the piece does have minor foibles, it is intelligently produced and directed with a very fine cast. The design throughout supports and contributes in a strong, simple way. It would be wonderful for the play if it receives such consideration regionally as provided by the strong production given it by the Women’s Project, and I look forward to what Laura Marks writes next.