This House Is Not a Home

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'Bethany' shows how bad things happen to good people Scarlett Johansson's star turn in the recently-opened Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has been garnering plenty of attention, but another small-statured star playing a desperate woman can be found Off-Broadway. That would be Emmy-winner America Ferrera (late of Ugly Betty), playing a struggling single woman crippled by the current economic crisis in [Laura Marks](' Bethany, now playing at New York's City Center Stage II. Directed with an effectively realistic hand by Gayle Taylor Upchurch for Women's Project Theater, the 2009-set Bethany features Ferrera as Crystal, a middle-class worker who has become homeless and sneaks into an abandoned house. She's not totally alone, however, as she soon meets fellow squatter Gary (Tobias Segal). The two strike up an amicable, if tentative, living arrangement that enables the two of them to play house when Crystal's not toiling at her day job selling cars at a struggling Saturn dealership. Crystal's world shatters even further when she learns that the dealership is going to close. As options get scarcer and scarcer, desperation increases. What is most impressive about Marks, a recent graduate of the Juilliard playwriting program, however, are the choices that this writer makes around a sobering situation. Crystal's straits may be dire, but her characters manage to imbue each of her scenes with a very human sense of humor that never feels like a reach or unearned, particular Emily Ackerman's Shannon, Crystal's fatigued-by-life boss, and Ken Marks (the husband of the playwright) as Charlie, a potential customer who peppers the play with motivational mini-monologues asserting such aphorisms as "We all have the power to manifest our own reality." But Crystal's reality is bleak, and as Bethany ups her personal stakes, the play emerges more and more as a clever character study rather than a social commentary. Stripped of creature comforts and of dignity, both Gary and Crystal are animals doing their best to survive. Trying to convince a social worker (a fantastic Myra Lucretia Taylor) that she's stable and solvent, Crystal buys a few household products and passes Gary off as a plumber. And just when she has curried audience favor by falling victim to Charlie's own petty power games, Marks the playwright pulls the rug out from under us by showing just how connivingly resourceful Crystal can be when pushed. This is a play where actions are secondarily important to reactions, and Ferrera proves herself to have excellent stage instincts. If there is one area that feels a little too simplistic, it is Marks' portrayal of squatting itself, which gets short shrift. The idea that someone could really walk into an empty house, still powered by electricity, and go undiscovered, feels false and unexplored. In fact, it's a little too farcical for a play as grounded in naturalism as it is by a great cast (that is also a reason why a climactic encounter feels too pantomimed to really work in Upchurch's current staging). Segal, less manic than he has been in past performances, succeeds in making Gary a cipher but one with an accessible moral code. Marks the actor devilishly devours both his monologues and his scenes opposite Ferrara. And as Crystal, Ferrera takes great care to show just how smart and foolish someone can be at the same time. Luckily, that's a tightrope neither Marks nor Upchurch have much trouble navigating. Bethany New York City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street. []( Through Feb. 17.

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