A Chat with Ken and Laura Marks of 'Bethany'

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More than four years into the current crippling recession, economic woes continue to haunt many American homeowners. Bethany, a Women's Project show set to begin previews later this week at City Center Stage II, is directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch and stars Emmy-winner America Ferrara as Crystal, a woman pushed to the brink by dire financial straits. Playwright Laura Marks and actor Ken Marks, one of the show's stars, work together on more projects than just Bethany. The two are also married and raising two daughters. New York Press spoke with the two about working together, family life, the economy, and a certain webslinger.

NYP: Is Bethany more of a comedy or a drama?

KM: The play has enormous humanity in it, which to me feels both funny and awful, or perhaps tragic and hilarious. It's a comedy full of drama. No. A tragedy full of humor. Ah, what's in a name? All my favorite plays have both.

LM: I'm not sure whether it's more of a comedy or drama. I guess we'll learn that from the audience.

NYP: Bethany is a timely play about the economy and foreclosures. Where did the idea come from, and did it have any personal resonance for either of you?

LM: I wrote Bethany in early 2009, right after I'd been laid off. I had a full-time job at a big corporate real estate firm. In some ways, the layoff was a blessing, because the unemployment and severance bought me a little time to write a play. But we had two small children and a mortgage, so I'd be lying if I said I wasn't scared. I think my anxiety about money absolutely permeates the play. It was a great time for imagining the worst-case scenario. At some point while I was cleaning out my desk, I read an article about how squatters were moving into foreclosed houses, and I thought, that's an interesting premise for a play.

KM: I can't speak to the idea for the play, but the personal resonance is all around us. The monumental hit the economy took in 2008 knocked both of us out of jobs. I was doing Hairspray on Broadway at the time, thinking we'd run until the Rapture came, or at least through the final episode of Glee, and then, boom, something like 19 shows closed on Broadway in January of 2009 and we were one of them. Throughout the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn where we live, there were hundreds of foreclosures and business closings.

LM: I happened to be at a corporate event in late 2008, post-Lehman, and of course the conversation was all about the recession. And a very powerful, well-off man said, "People in other parts of the country aren't hurting the way we are in New York." And I thought, wow, this guy has no idea.

NYP: What kind of research did you have to do for the show?

LM: Barbara Ehrenreich was a big influence. She wrote this wonderful op-ed in The New York Times in late 2008 (this was two years before her book Bright-Sided came out, but along the same lines) saying that the blind optimism peddled in books like The Secret was partly responsible for the financial crisis: "You will be able to pay that adjustable-rate mortgage?if only you believe that you can." Her work led me to start investigating the low points of the whole "law of attraction" genre. There are some hilariously bad books out there-titles like I'm Rich Beyond My Wildest Dreams-I Am. I Am. I Am. Ken's character, Charlie, comes from that whole movement.

KM: Without giving too much away, my character (Charlie) calls himself a "transformative motivational speaker," and his audience is undoubtedly made up of people who've been hit hard by the crashing economy. Charlie also considers himself to be deeply spiritual, and has experienced something of an awakening, so in addition to some interesting source material, I've been having a good time exploring some unique characters I've met over the years. I've also been reading materials on white collar unemployment, like Barbara Ehrenreich's Bait and Switch, and spent some enjoyable time watching motivational speakers do their thing on YouTube.

LM: There's another character in the play, Gary, whose worldview is partly inspired by the Unabomber's manifesto. I also interviewed social workers in different states, and talked to a human resources guy at a Saturn dealership shortly before the whole brand went under. The city where the play takes place is never identified in the script, but I wanted it to feel grounded and familiar. It's that homogenized America that you see when you're driving on the interstate and every single exit ramp has the same five stores.

NYP: What do you hope the audience takes away from Bethany?

KM: The characters in Bethany go to great lengths to protect the things or people they love. Huge lengths. If the audience is left with the question of "How far would I go?," that would be terrific. They should also take away that Laura is an amazing dramatist.

LM: Mostly I just want them to feel drawn into the story. When an audience agrees to sit in the dark and listen to your story for ninety minutes, it's a big responsibility.

NYP: As Bethany, a look at the housing crisis, came together, Ken, you were a part of another event headline-grabber. What was the Spider-Man experience like for you? And what's it been like to bounce from that to Bethany?

KM: [joking at first] I'm sorry, I can't speak about Spider-Man. Actually, I signed a non-disclosure pact and if I say anything about it at all, Michael Riedel will have to arm wrestle Patrick Healy. Spider-Man has been an amazing experience. To be in that rehearsal room with Julie Taymor and an enormously talented company for all those months trying to do something extremely original is something I will never ever forget. But it was surreal to be in the center of an international media feeding frenzy. When Julie was replaced, the company, as strung out as we all were from rehearsing and previewing for nine months in the bulls-eye of the media, showed remarkable character by hanging together and helping create something new in a very short period of time. On the night we previewed the new version of the show, the version that we were finally going to open with a few weeks later, the curtain rang down amidst cheers and applause and many of us simply and openly wept. There was a collective sense that the monkey was off our back.

Bethany has been on my mind since I did the first reading of it back in 2009, and I've done a bunch of the other readings of it since then, so it wasn't as difficult a bounce as it might have been. It would be something of an understatement to say I've been desperately hoping and praying for a chance to work on this play since that first reading at the Barrow Street, and I'm extremely grateful to Julie Crosby, Women's Project Theater's Producing Artistic Director, and director Gaye Taylor Upchurch for giving me this opportunity. I've been working around town for almost 30 years, and I've done a lot of theatre Off-Broadway. So even though this is my first time at the Women's Project, I feel like I'm home again.

NYP: Including Ken, Bethany has amassed a very impressive cast. How has it been working with everyone?

KM: What a great group. It's beautiful to watch a group of actors create an ensemble. It's absolutely still one of my favorite things about doing theatre.

LM: We have a fantastic cast ? daring, professional, and totally committed. It's such a gift to work with these smart, fierce actors. They ask all the right questions. Working with them has taught me a lot about the play. And America Ferrera, who plays the protagonist, Crystal, is a formidable talent.

NYP: What is it like for the two of you to work together?

LM: One of the great side benefits of this project is that Ken and I get a chance to hang out together in a grown-up environment where we're not stepping on Cheerios. When Ken is working nights and weekends in a show, any free time we have tends to be devoted to the kids. So it's been a treat for me just to ride the subway home with him after our rehearsals. We don't usually get that kind of time to catch up with each other.

KM: It feels absolutely right and good that I should look across the rehearsal room to check in with the playwright, and it's my wife. As our five-year-old daughter says when the enjoyment of something becomes almost too much: "Love it."

LM: Doing the work that you love with the person that you love ? that's as good as it gets. I'm so thankful that we got the chance to do this.

For more information about Bethany, go to http://www.womensproject.org/on_our_stage.htm

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