What inspired you to write “Bethany”?
I wrote Bethany in early 2009, right after I’d been laid off. I had a full-time job at a big corporate real estate firm. In some ways, the layoff was a blessing, because the unemployment and severance bought me a little time to write a play. But we had two small children and a mortgage, and my husband had just lost his job, too, so I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared. I think my anxiety about money absolutely permeates the play. It was a great time for imagining the worst-case scenario. And at some point while I was cleaning out my desk, I read an article about how squatters were moving into foreclosed houses, and I thought, wow, that’s an interesting premise for a play.
And I read something else that got me thinking: Barbara Ehrenreich wrote this wonderful op-ed in The New York Times in late 2008 — this was two years before her book “Bright-Sided” came out, but along the same lines — saying that the blind optimism peddled in books like “The Secret” [by Rhonda Byrne] was partly responsible for the financial crisis: “You will be able to pay that adjustable-rate mortgage … If only you believe that you can.” Her work led me to start investigating the low points of the whole “law of attraction” genre. There are some hilariously bad books out there — titles like “I’m Rich Beyond My Wildest Dreams — I Am. I Am. I Am.” The motivational speaker in the play, Charlie, comes from that whole movement. I’m all for positive thinking, but I do think that whole philosophy of, “All I have to do is believe, and the money will come!” has a really dark, dangerous side. And that’s something I wanted to explore in the play.
In the play’s program, you have an artist’s statement where you mention that the play’s setting is never explicitly stated. Why didn’t you set it in a place like Detroit or Atlantic City or Jacksonville?
Ultimately it just felt right to set it in a nameless American city. I wanted the world of the play to feel grounded and familiar, so I did a lot of research: I interviewed social workers from Child Services in several different states, for example, and I talked with a human resources guy at Saturn right before they went under. But I think the world of “Bethany” should feel like that homogenized America that you see when you’re driving on the interstate and every exit ramp in every state has the same five stores.
Though it’s not explicitly stated, one character appears to be dealing with an untreated mental illness. How much experience do you have with homeless people who struggle with mental health issues?
Gary’s worldview is partly inspired by the Unabomber’s manifesto. Also, my dad is a psychiatrist in Kentucky, where I grew up, and I actually tagged along on rounds with him a few times when I was a kid, and then worked in his office all through high school. I think I grew up feeling a lot of empathy toward people who are mentally ill — I don’t think of them as “other,” I think of it as something that can happen to anyone.
And certainly when you live in New York City there are inescapable reminders of homelessness all around you. It was interesting to me to write about a different kind of community where homelessness is maybe less visible, easier to ignore. And also to write about a person — Crystal — who you would never expect to be dealing with homelessness, because she wears a suit and looks on the surface like someone who is doing all right.
When writing about serious social issues such as homelessness and mental illness, it’s difficult to find humor, but your play is both unsettling and funny. Why did you infuse the play with humor?
It’s just a matter of taste, I guess. Personally I get worn out by stories that are unrelievedly dark and horrible. And I think when you give an audience a chance to release the tension for a moment by laughing, they let their guard down a bit — and they give you the chance to pull the tension even tighter.
The play is set in 2009, when the global economic crisis was in full swing. Now it’s 2014, and statistics show the recession is over and foreclosures are down. Yet people still face tough economic decisions. How do you know if a play will remain relevant?
The play is meant to be a bit of a time capsule. But I do think people still remember how the country felt then and many people are still struggling to regain lost ground.
When you began to write “Bethany,” you’d just lost a job. But what about now? How did you and your family fare during the economic crisis?
After I wrote “Bethany” I was accepted for a graduate fellowship in playwriting at The Juilliard School, so I spent a couple of years there as a grad student. And recently there was a job opening for literary manager at Juilliard — so now I’m back there working alongside my former teachers, Chris Durang [who won a 2013 Tony Award for Best Play for “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”] and Marsha Norman [who won a 1983 Pulitzer for her play “night, Mother”], both of whom I just love. Most playwrights, even really successful ones like Tony Kushner [who won the 1993 Pulitzer for “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes”], will tell you that writing for the theater seldom pays the bills. I feel very thankful to have this job at Juilliard that helps support my family and helps me keep writing plays.
While you only have so much control in this realm, what do you want people to take away from the play?
I think whenever an audience agrees to sit in the dark and listen for  minutes, your first responsibility is just to tell them a good story. I don’t want to tell anyone what they should think or feel about the play. I just want them to go along for the ride.