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THEATER REVIEW: “Bethany” at The Old Globe

Business-suited Crystal (Jennifer Ferrin, of AMC’s “Hell on Wheels” series) jimmies open the door of a foreclosed home and enters, only to find a scruffy squatter named Gary (Carlo Albán) – with a wicked-looking two-by-four in his hand – has preceded her.

Gary says he’s harmless and is using the upstairs bedroom. He suggests she take the living room. And thus an uneasy roommate situation is born with this paranoid conspiracy theorist.

It’s 2009 – the height of the recession – and Crystal is one of its victims. She’s lost her home to foreclosure and her five-year-old daughter Bethany to a county agency. Her sales job at the local Saturn agency may be her only chance to dig herself out of the hole and get Bethany back.

You’ll need to suspend disbelief to make sense of Laura Marks’ one-act “Bethany,” in its West Coast premiere through Feb. 23 at The Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre. For example, you’d think the sea of foreclosed homes Crystal sees through the window would afford the possibility of picking another that she wouldn’t have to share with a stranger.

At the Saturn dealership, Crystal encounters Charlie (James Shanklin), a self-styled self-help guru – you know, the type who tells you God wants you to be rich and all you have to do is believe you deserve it. We see him several times practicing his spiel in the mirror.

He comes in to look at a fancy model Saturn and seems close to putting his signature on that dotted line. Crystal realizes this may be her chance to get herself back on track, so she applies the full-court sales press – even after he tells her he has been in earlier and worked with another salesperson.

Stealing a colleague’s customer is frowned upon here. Crystal’s boss Shannon, played brilliantly by DeAnna Driscoll, puts it this way: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

But these are desperate times and she needs that sale. She also needs to convince social worker Toni (Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson) that she’s financially stable enough to take care of Bethany. The question is how far she is willing to go to accomplish this.

Nothing comes easy here, but Ferrin’s Crystal shows remarkable pluck – if somewhat questionable ethics – in her struggle to survive.

Gaye Taylor Upchurch (who also helmed the New York opening) gives this ever-darkening piece a sense of foreboding.

Driscoll’s Shannon is briskly venomous as Crystal’s boss; Thompson an efficient pencil pusher as social worker Toni.

The men in this slice of Crystal’s life are difficult to even watch, much less care about. Is Albán’s Gary just a crazy without a treatment center? A darkly dangerous person? Or just a prop? What’s his story?

Shanklin’s Charlie has two thankless tasks: he’s slimy and given too many of those “only believe” speeches to deliver. But he’s convincing at both.

Lauren Helpern’s appropriately spare set design serves nicely in the round. Sarah J. Holden’s costumes set the time and mood well.

Japhy Weideman’s lighting and especially Leon Rothenberg’s original music and sound design contribute to the atmosphere.

In “Bethany,” Marks gives us an uncomfortable portrait of what bad times can do to presumably good people. You probably won’t guess where it’s going, but you may, like me, be consulting your watch and wishing they’d hurry up and get there.

The details

“Bethany” plays through Feb. 23 at The Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm.; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (619) 234-5623 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.