Review: America Ferrera in Off-Broadway's “Bethany”

For all the questionable choices made by the single mom at the center of Laura Marks’ provocative new play “Bethany," which opened recently at City Center, our affection for her rarely wanes.

That’s a testament to charismatic actress America Ferrera, who makes Crystal, a suburban saleswoman who has lost it all, just as likable as the character she played for four seasons on TV’s “Ugly Betty.”

That’s saying something, because Crystal finds herself in far uglier situations, making far more gruesome decisions, than Betty, the "Mode" magazine fashionista, ever did.

As we meet the penniless heroine, she’s looking for a home to squat in, and the pickings are plentiful: “Bethany” is set in a nameless American exurb, wiped out by foreclosures. Crystal happens into an abandoned property already claimed by the good-natured, but off-balance Gary (Tobias Segal, mangy and likable), who spouts off about the “military-industrial complex” and such matters. The two reach an uneasy truce about the shared living space, and he eventually becomes a protective ally.

Crystal’s desire for shelter isn’t wholly self-serving. She needs a home, with her name on the lease, in order to win back her daughter, the “Bethany” of the title, who is in the custody of social services. Crystal also needs to make a sale at the Saturn dealership where she works. It’s 2009, the depths of the financial crisis, and the beleaguered young professional has put her eggs in a basket that General Motors is about to empty.

When a potential customer arrives, Crystal has a glimmer of hope. Charlie (Ken Marks, the playwright’s husband) is a motivational speaker with a wandering eye who gives talks at the local Holiday Inn. Crystal initially tries to win him over with a sincere pitch: “When you buy a Saturn you're buying American ingenuity and American jobs.”

Would you buy a car from this woman? Well, yeah, we would. But Charlie's a slippery one. Much of the tension moving into the dark comedy rests on the lengths to which Crystal will go to close the deal with Charlie, who clearly expects a quid pro quo on his purchase.

Charlie’s motivations lead to a violent scene between Crystal and the two men in her life, which might have benefited from some paring down by director Gaye Taylor Upchurch. Still, Ferrera and Segal manage an impressive display of physicality that lingers in the mind after curtain calls.

Myra Lucretia Taylor is nuanced as the social worker who doesn’t want to stand between Crystal and her daughter, but still has rules that need to be followed. Emily Ackerman provides needed levity as Crystal’s cynical boss at the doomed dealership. Kudos go to scenic designer Lauren Helpern, whose two locations, the grimy kitchen of the abandoned home, and the showroom of the Saturn dealership, underscore the building aura of desperation as Crystal tries to right her sinking ship.

“Bethany” makes for an interesting companion piece to the recent Broadway revival of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” and the fall’s Playwrights Horizons staging of “Detroit,” all of which benefit from being viewed during our long slog of economic recovery. 

“Bethany” will make you stop and think about how fragile life can be for a single mom in uncertain times, and the lengths to which a person might go to provide for her child. On her winsome TV comedy, Ferrera was the put-upon assistant and unabashed optimist who always won the day. She’s still playing that woman, but with far more at stake this time around.

“Bethany,” at New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St., through Feb. 17. Tickets: $60. Call 212-581-1212.

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