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Theater review: 'Bethany,' at Old Globe, challenges credibility

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SAN DIEGO — The foreclosure crisis is more than background noise in Laura Marks' "Bethany," now at the Old Globe. It's the setup for a recessionary drama that turns — not very plausibly, I hasten to add — into a bloody thriller.

Crystal (Jennifer Ferrin), a single mother who has lost her home, decides to break into a foreclosed house that still has electricity and running water. Her plan is to pass this off as her new rental home to the social worker in charge of her case for getting her daughter back.

Crystal lost custody of Bethany when the two were living out of her car. Working on commission at an automobile dealership in a town where hardly anyone can afford their mortgage, never mind an expensive set of wheels, Crystal doesn't have many options.

But it's hard to credit her decision to stay in the abandoned house after she discovers that there's already an illegal occupant — one who, for all his talk of being harmless, seems borderline insane.

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Carlo Albán plays Gary, the paranoid upstairs squatter, with a simian air. He doesn't so much talk as grunt, and there's a menacing quality to his stupefied stare that would send most people running for the nearest exit.

Crystal's decision to share the house with Gary is the first of several plot points defying common sense. (Note to unlawful tenants: Don't bunk with a stranger who starts swinging a two-by-four every time there's a knock at the door.)

Are we really supposed to believe that a social worker (Sylvia M'Lafi Thompson) wouldn't call the landlord of the property Crystal claims to be renting? Even more difficult to swallow is the business between Crystal and Charlie (James Shanklin). A middle-aged out-of-work schlub trying to repackage himself as a motivational speaker, Charlie feebly pretends to be interested in buying a car from Crystal while clumsily putting the moves on her.

Charlie's behavior is so transparent that even Gary, hardly the brightest bulb, can't help being outraged that Crystal is falling for it.

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Suspending audience disbelief would be hard enough given the material, but the production, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch on a blandly functional set by Lauren Helpern, compounds the difficulty. The actors have been encouraged to proceed in a realistic fashion, but the scenes have a halting flow that throws into relief the eye-rolling nature of a plot that only grows steadily more violent and far-fetched.

The problem isn't, for the most, the characterizations. Albán's Gary is the least believable (an issue of interpretation as much as writing), but the other portraits are individually well drawn. Yet the contrived way these characters are brought together undermines any attempt at verisimilitude.

"Bethany," which had a successful New York premiere last year in a Women's Project Theater production starring America Ferrera, strives to show us the desperate consequences of an economy cruelly stacked against ordinary citizens. The subject is indeed powerfully resonant, but the faulty execution keeps the play from hitting home.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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'Bethany'

Where: The Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 23.

Tickets: Start at $29

Contact: (619) 234-5623

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

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