‘Bethany’ an offbeat survivalist thriller

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‘BETHANY’ RECOMMENDED When: Through Nov. 23 Where: The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Tickets: $20-$30 Info: (773) 283-7071; thegifttheatre.org Run time: 1 hour and 35 minutes with no intermission

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To what lengths will people go to survive? That is the question at the very heart of Laura Marks’ “Bethany,” the fast-paced psychological thriller now receiving its Chicago premiere in a taut, surprisingly poignant, at moments blackly comic production by The Gift Theatre.

To say very much beyond that is difficult without giving away far too much. But nothing is lost by noting that director Marti Lyons has assembled a terrific cast, that Courtney O’Neill has designed an exceptionally clever set for a challenging storefront space, and that Marks’ play is set primarily in a generic condo in “a small American exurb.” Even more to the point: It is 2009, right smack in the middle of the recession. And now is when a grand-scale spoiler alert is in order.

At the center of Marks’ story is Crystal (Hillary Clemens), a pretty, vivacious young woman who, when we first see her, enters the apartment looking fresh and stylish. She is wheeling a suitcase and carrying some mail that suggests she might just have returned from a business trip, or is renting a new place and waiting for her furniture to arrive. This is not quite the case. As we learn, she is a squatter, moving into an apartment whose recent occupant has died, and whose water and electricity services are still functioning. She also is not alone. Already squatting upstairs is Gary (Paul D’Addario), a scared and somewhat scary “roommate-to-be.” He might be suffering from some sort of post-traumatic syndrome, or just a mentally unstable survivalist. But somehow they both are desperate enough to forge a habitation of convenience.

Crystal, as it turns out, has a job, selling Saturns at a local car dealership, but it is about to go belly-up, so again, desperation is the name of the game. Her most promising customer is Charlie (James D. Farruggio), whose polished looks belie the reality of his financial situation, and whose practiced charm is part of his attempt to become a “success evangelist.” Neither Crystal nor Charlie are quite who they appear to be, and their smiles begin to crack the more they engage in wheeling and dealing.

Money is only a means to an end for Crystal. What drives her is her need to regain custody of the young daughter she lost after her financial meltdown left her homeless. And she will beg, borrow, steal and do much more to achieve that goal, though Marks derails her play when she has her turn to the most extreme violence. Nevertheless, Clemens’ wonderfully expressive face keeps you watching and listening while she balances, with ever greater frenzy, D’Addario’s unpredictability and Farruggio’s smarminess. And there are fine supporting performances by Kirby O’Connell (as another car showroom employee), Susaan Jamshidi (as a child welfare investigator) and Mary Anne Bowman (as a beleaguered wife).

Early on, as Charlie practices his spiel, he asks his imaginary audience: Have you lived your life based on hard work and anxiety? And he promises he has the secrets that could have saved them from losing their home. Of course he is living the nightmare himself.

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