There’s a social economy, Bethany suggests, along with a material one.
  • There’s a social economy, Bethany suggests, along with a material one.
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Bethany, by Laura Marks

Old Globe Theatre, Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Balboa Park

Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch; cast: Carlo Alban, DeAnna Driscoll, Jennifer Ferrin, Amanda Naughton, James Shanklin, Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson; scenic design Lauren Helpern; costumes, Sarah J. Holden; lighting, Japhy Weideman; original music and sound, Leon Rothenberg

Playing through February 23; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623. TheOldGlobe.org

In the New Testament, Bethany was the village on the Mount of Olives where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. In Laura Marks’s Bethany, young Crystal struggles to keep from falling. Though twice voted salesperson of the month at a Ford dealership, she lost her job, then her home, then her daughter, Bethany. The authorities found them sleeping in a car. When they placed the child in a foster home, Crystal vowed to do anything to get Bethany back. Any thing.

It’s 2009. Crystal’s cold streak continues. She lands work at a Saturn dealership. Unbeknownst to her, the company will soon go under. So many houses have foreclosed in her small, unnamed city that entire streets are dark at night (at the Old Globe, to reinforce the point, panels display aerial views of tract homes, half of them erased). As resourceful as she is desperate, Crystal chooses a house that still has electricity and moves in. She’ll forge a lease, ship-shape the place for the foster child inspectors, and make a home for Bethany.

Along with the slim chance of pulling off that iffy ruse, Crystal has another problem. Homeless Gary, a jittery survivalist, occupies the house already. If she passed him on the street in cheerful economic times, Crystal would speed up. These days his paranoid ravings about the Military Industrial Complex, the “barter economy to come,” and electromagnetic field radiation make a kind of sense to her — though why, after a brief conversation, she decides to share the house with him makes less.

Somehow Gary sold her on the idea. In many ways Bethany is about buying and selling: of things and schemes, even life plans. There’s a social economy, the play suggests, along with a material one. The three main characters, battered by downsized dreams, try to sell each other visions of the future.

To underline the point, Charlie pretends to buy a high-end Saturn from Crystal. He says he’s a “transformative motivational speaker.” He urges audiences at Holiday Inns to “turn your life around.” But Charlie may not be what he claims. He often rehearses speeches to make them sound spontaneous.

Like Gary, Charlie manages to lead Crystal downward (the males may differ in speech and dress, but they’re selfish jerks). Crystal’s choices cross the line between “doing anything,” and everything else.

Bethany premiered in New York and enjoyed a successful run. And the play tackles a major contemporary issue head on: living one paycheck away from destitution. But the loose, wavering version, in the Old Globe’s intimate White Theatre, doesn’t work. This is a surprise, because Gaye Taylor Upchurch directed both.

The staging wrestles with the in-the-round configuration. On Lauren Helpern’s minimalist set — awfully clean for an abandoned home — the actors enter from three sets of stairs. The repeated goings and comings take time. Better use of the stage-level entrances would have picked up the pace and sustained suspense.

The play often pauses, but the actors only fill them with mundane business: sweep the floor, clean the kitchen, groceries in the fridge. If these acts have pregnant, Pinteresque import, it’s not apparent. They’re mostly dead visual air.

As played by Carlo Alban, Jennifer Ferrin, and James Shanklin, Gary, Crystal, and Charlie lack depth. They reflect shifting emotional surfaces but rarely the sense of inner lives struggling with extreme choices, ethical codes, or even the suggestion of thinking.

Alban plays Gary as a watered-down Mark Wahlberg. His hair is too styled for a homeless man, and his outfit should be more distressed. The play works against the character. He’s whatever a scene needs: comic figure, sympathetic ear, raging brute.

For a motivational speaker, Shanklin’s Charlie lacks any hint of charisma, either genuine or homemade. Ferrin hits the appropriate emotional marks, but plays Crystal almost subtext-free. The trio tone themselves down so much they could be performing for TV.

A more convincing fight scene might have absolved many flaws. At play’s end, Gary and Crystal assault each other. On opening night, Ferrin and Alban looked like they were rehearsing the lengthy sequence in slow motion — I swing the board, you duck — rather than acting them in earnest. It was hard enough to believe that Crystal had any chance against Gary, who may have a military background. The phony, by the numbers fight made it impossible.

Bethany

Local Bias Alert: three San Diegans were cast in supporting roles. Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson (a dignified social worker), Amanda Naughton (Charlie’s mousey, understanding wife), and especially DeAnna Driscoll (terrific as Crystal’s hip, harsh when need be, and humane sales manager) did themselves, and us, proud.

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