After the financial collapse of 2008, some theaters reacted by dusting off old playwrights whose work reflects the current crisis—Chekhov's real-estate obsessions, Arthur Miller's busted American dream, Dario Fo's slapstick class warfare. But Bethany, by Laura Marks, is one of the first plays in which every character and every line is soaked in 21st-century economic anxiety.
Physically, Bethany floats in a void. Director John Langs and set designer Carey Wong have set the play in the round and carved a moat around the perimeter of the stage, with dim blue light shining up from below—a visual reminder that each of these characters, at every moment, is standing near the edge of a precipice.
Crystal (Emily Chisholm), a single mother and saleswoman at a doomed Saturn dealership, breaks into a house in foreclosure, hoping to squat there long enough to fool Child Protective Services into thinking she's financially stable—a requirement to get her daughter Bethany back. But the house already has an occupant, a skittish man named Gary (Darragh Kennan). They're both financial refugees, but Crystal still wears a skirt and suit jacket, where Gary's bristly beard, body odor, and paranoia about "society" and "the government" going down the tubes are an omen of where she might be headed if she's destitute long enough.
Meanwhile, she's determined to sell one last luxury car—and collect one last commission—before the dealership closes. Her customer is a sleazeball named Charlie (Richard Ziman) who has a habit of standing in front of the mirror rehearsing motivational speeches about how the universe will make us all rich if we only act entitled enough. He can smell the desperation behind Crystal's pasted-on smile and wonders how far she's willing to go to sell him that car. She's beginning to wonder, too.
Ziman plays Charlie as a pillar of smug, lecherous smarm, the polar opposite of smelly, unstable, and helpful Gary. The main gap between them is hope: Charlie believes the world still owes him some favors, while Gary is under no such delusion and is nicer for it. Crystal hangs between them, keenly aware of the abyss surrounding her, hoping that one more lie, one more scheme, will return things to normal. Chisholm plays Crystal with an exoskeleton of forced cheerfulness, a mask that only occasionally slips. But when it does, her face goes through masterfully fast contortions of emotion—relief, sorrow, fear, exhaustion.
None of Marks's characters are mysterious or complicated—what you see is what you get—with the small exception of Toni, the CPS inspector, played by Cynthia Jones. The other characters might take extreme actions, but it's always the logical extension of where they were headed anyway. Toni is the only one with the flexibility to change course and make surprising decisions—because she is the only one who isn't desperate, the only one with the financial and psychological luxury to change her mind. In Toni, we see that a little security helps keep people sane.