Play Review: “Bethany” at The Old Globe Theatre

Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch
Written by Laura Marks
Cast Jennifer Ferrin, Carlo Alban, DeAnna Driscoll, Amanda Naughton, James Shanklin, Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson
Runs Jan.25 to Feb. 23
Location The Old Globe Theatre

Five years ago, Laura Marks lost her job in the financial sector to the recession. Naturally, she turned to her lifelong passion for theater to alleviate the stresses of unemployment, a transition that culminated in the play “Bethany.”

Inspired by post-layoff anxieties, “Bethany” is a complicated drama that attempts to tackle the still-sensitive topic of the 2007 housing crisis but has difficulty grounding itself in reality. The story centers around Crystal (Jennifer Ferrin of AMC’s “Hell on Wheels”), a Saturn saleswoman, and her struggle to regain her footing after losing her home to the recession. In her efforts to turn her life around, she finds herself squatting in the suburbs with Gary (Carlo Alban), a paranoid conspiracy theorist with a penchant for swinging planks at intruders.

With a sitcom-style premise like that, “Bethany” fails to really address the issue of the housing crisis (it becomes confusing whether this was the play’s intent at all) and instead detours into an alternately dark and jarringly blithe tale of the frightening depths to which Crystal is willing to go to survive. Because of this focus, Crystal is the only character who enjoys fully fleshed-out development; the rest of the cast are criminally underutilized, and Marks doesn’t quite know what to do with them. Gary, in particular, suffers from superficial writing, becoming an expendable, “fight-the-Man” caricature. Meanwhile, James Shanklin’s Charlie, a questionable motivational speaker, is entertainingly sleazy until the character takes a repulsive turn in the latter half of the play.

One-dimensional characters aside, the play is partially salvaged by Ferrin’s powerful portrayal of Crystal’s escalating desperation; Ferrin is consistently strong until the final few scenes, when she (and the play) begins to lose credibility with the audience. In the last quarter of the play, the task of suspending the audience’s disbelief is made increasingly impossible as the action dissolves into a bewildering and abruptly violent conclusion that takes Crystal’s moral ambiguity perhaps a step too far.

Though bogged down by a clumsy script, the staging in “Bethany” is very effective — light and sound are highlights of the production that accurately manipulate the atmosphere of key scenes. Noteworthy mention goes to sound staging during scene transitions, in which the music blasting through overpowering surround sound fades to tinny, in-store pop as we cut from the house to the Saturn dealership.

Overall, however, small moments when individual pieces of the production shine aren’t enough to gloss over the play’s jarring problems. That the story strays from its own premise and offers no insight on the housing crisis only adds confusion to a plot that already suffers from a relatively short, hour-and-a-half running time. Cuts made from the original Off-Broadway version scrap crucial context that help justify Crystal’s actions, ultimately creating an unsympathetic heroine whose actions leave the audience disoriented and unpleasantly bewildered.