New drama casts American Dream in a cold light

February 5, 2013

The American Dream distorted almost beyond recognition by mass foreclosures, women working on straight commission, men not working at all, and an alleged “higher power” who wants you to be rich beyond your wildest dreams, is the subject of the Women’s Project Theater’s production of “Bethany,” a new play by the young playwright Laura Marks.

The central character, Crystal, (played by America Ferrera, star of the “Ugly Betty” television series) is trying to regain custody of her daughter, Bethany, who has been placed in foster care because foreclosure has left her mother homeless.

Crystal is a victim of the American Dream, portrayed in this work as little more than an elaborate con game where honest, frantic people run like rats on a wheel – with firmer, secure ground hopelessly out of reach.

To fulfill the requirements of a social worker’s check list, played pitch perfectly by Myra Lucretia Taylor, Crystal is busy constructing her own small con game in a determined attempt to outwit the larger one that has trapped her.

To persuade the social worker she has a suitable home for her daughter,Crystal sneaks into a foreclosed house and forges a lease. But she soon finds she is not alone on this property. She’s been preceded there by Gary (Tobias Segal), a slightly paranoid survivalist of sorts who is living “below the radar,” but who is also the moral compass of the play.

While Crystal single-mindedly works to get her daughter back at any cost, Gary is conscious of every moral compromise the system forces on individuals and their ability to express themselves. He rails against the military industrial complex, though he feeds himself with C-rations he gets at the Army-Navy store. Gary’s struggle against the system is a losing one. But it is memorable, and has flashes of nobility.

Meanwhile, at work, Crystal is engaged in a more standard con. She sells Saturn cars. “If you’re a family man, it can change your relationship with your kids. If you’re a single guy, it can be the thing that gets you laid.” And, finally, “When you buy a Saturn you’re buying American ingenuity and American jobs.”

But this con will envelop not the customer, but Crystal, because Crystal’s customer, Charlie (Ken Marks), is only pretending to be on the verge of buying a car. As Crystal learns the day before the dealership closes, Charlie has been unemployed for 18 months as a “transformative motivational speaker.” He is in no position to buy a $32,000 car.

Crystal has no need for a motivational speaker. Getting her daughter back is her sole, driving motive. “I’d do anything for her,” she declares.

Take her word for it.

“Bethany,” a world premiere, is directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch. It runs through February 17 at City Center in New York City.

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