‘Belleville’ descends into madness
By Hedy Weiss Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org July 7, 2013 9:07PM
Zack (Cliff Chamberlain) and Abby (Kate Arrington), married Americans living in Paris, have major trust issues in Amy Herzog’s “Belleville.” | MICHAEL BROSILOW
When: Through Aug. 25
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
Info: (312) 335-1650; www.steppenwolf.org
Run time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission
Updated: August 9, 2013 6:07AM
This review must begin with a spoiler alert. So if you wish to see Amy Herzog’s play “Belleville” in that state of high suspense most ideal for any initial exposure to a psychological thriller — even if “thriller” is not quite the right descriptive for this tale of a calamitous marriage — stop reading right here.
In addition, if you have a low threshold for dysfunction, be advised that Herzog’s play, now in an expertly acted Steppenwolf Theatre production directed by Anne Kauffman (who also staged its Yale Repertory debut and Off-Broadway edition), flirts dangerously with a surfeit of such behavior, and also applies a rather thick layer of melodrama to her story. In fact, at a certain point, you might well find yourself crying out for an intervention, or, on the other hand, detaching on any serious emotional level, simply because things have been pushed too far.
At its best, “Belleville” is a blistering anatomy of two marriages — one built on sickness, lies, codependence and massive denial, and the other on healthy if sometimes contentious camaraderie.
Signs of the sick marriage are evident from the get-go, despite the idyllic-sounding situation. Zack (Cliff Chamberlain) and Abby (Kate Arrington) are Americans in their late 20s, living in a classic Paris apartment in the bohemian, ethnically diverse neighborhood of Belleville. (James Schuette’s rooftop-view set, beautifully lit by Matt Frey, is a great tease.)
A med school graduate, Zack works at an institute involved in research on the treatment of children with AIDS, and Abby teaches yoga. So what explains the fact that when Kate is out, Zack watches porn and masturbates, and smokes significant quantities of pot in a clearly desperate way? As for Kate, as we soon discover she is beyond “difficult,” trying to wean herself from meds for depression and anxiety, and unable to survive a day without calling her widowed dad back in the U.S.
Things begin to unravel one December evening as the couple’s landlord, Alouine (Chris Boykin), who has become friends with Zack, issues an ultimatum to his tenant who has now failed to pay four months’ rent. This turns out to be the very least important piece of information Zack has failed to mention to Abby. As we come to realize, Zack is not at all who Abby thinks he is, even though they have “known” each other for more than five years.
Alouine and his wife, Amina (Alana Arenas), who are of Senegalese heritage, and are the parents of two young children, are a very different pair. Though they certainly have their tense and questioning moments with each other, they are a team. And if Amina is ever in a state of panic, it is only because she is a fiercely protective mother, armed at every moment with a baby remote alarm (a device of terror in this play).
Herzog has written some very sharp dialogue and cannily manipulates our impressions of her four characters, all of whom are played superbly here. And her play’s final scene — a return to normalcy by people who believe in the importance of getting on with life — provides a much-needed catharsis. But the play falls apart as its ever-escalating grand guignol elements come into play, with a drunken Kate hacking at an injured toe with the chef’s knife that becomes an object of Hitchcock-like dread, and with Zack increasingly desperate about the tower of lies he has constructed.
The question here is not “Can this marriage be saved?” but “How could it possibly have lasted this long without a murder or suicide?” But as dramatic solutions, murder and suicide are the easy way out.