A CurtainUp Review
A cry of "Don't," was yelled out by someone in the audience at the performance I saw during a scene in which a carving knife is raised in the air. But it is not the only instance that the audience responded viscerally and vocally to a number of harrowing scenes. Bloody good stuff here.
However, Belleville is not a horror tale. It is experienced from the gripping, emotionally searing perspective of two people in love who have become entrapped in a web of each other's deceptions. It is also dramatized by a perceptive playwright who knows what she is doing and how to do it. This, despite program notes that interestingly chronicle the many changes in Herzog made between the first drafts to opening night.
It's hard to imagine a more unexpectedly romantic, enviably idyllic beginning to married life than that granted to the young American couple Abby (Maria Dizzia) and Zack (Greg Keller). They have taken up a residency in a spacious apartment in the multi-cultural Belleville section of Paris. Zack, a recent medical school graduate, has presumably been fortunate to get a job here doing medical research while Abby appears to be making the most of her daily shopping expeditions in the colorful neighborhood.
Returning to their comfortable, unpretentiously furnished apartment (evocatively designed Julia C. Lee — check out those marvelously tall slender louvered French windows and shutters), Abby lets out a piercing scream when she opens the bedroom door. She's startled because she thought she was alone in the middle of the afternoon. Thankful at not discovering an intruder, she is, however, noticeably unnerved at the sight of her nude husband masturbating to porn on his computer. "You're having a slightly Victorian reaction," he says in an attempt to temper the situation, even as we also begin to see how being unnerved, overly stressed and jittery seems to not only be Abby's norm, but also specifically symptomatic of her severe psychological disorder.
What is also not immediately exposed is besides Zack's dalliance with internet porn and his frequent pot smoking is what exactly he is really doing during the day? The evidence of passion in play is quite graphically presented, but there is a more unsettling interplay between the couple. Zack appears to be deliberately careful about practically everything he says to Abby. He is especially cautious about how to say things without them appearing to her as condescending, baiting, judgmental or unsympathetic, since she is presumably attempting to detoxify from her dependence on anti-depressants.
If we get glimpses of acute paranoia in Abby's behavior, we can also see why Zack is reticent about telling her any more than she needs to know, particularly the fact that he has not paid the rent for the past four months. The play's other two characters, Alioune (Phillip James Brannon) and Amina (Pascale Armand), are the French-speaking Black Muslim landlords of the apartment building. They have maintained respectful regard for their tenants, even speaking English with them.
Alioune graciously accepts Christmas cookies from Abby as well as invitations to smoke pot with Zack. The relationship they have with Zack gets a bit dicey, when Zack's excuses for not paying the rent are no longer acceptable. Also no longer acceptable is his rather recklessly guarded secret and its effect on Abby whose own mental stability appears to be disintegrating at a rapid rate.
Abby clings neurotically to her phone and the calls to New Jersey where her father keeps her informed about the impending birth of her sister's baby. There is nothing for Zack to cling to except Abby. Her excessive drinking leads to the play's grossest moment and a stunning, heart-breaking denouement in which we see only Alioune and Amina as they quietly and ruefully speak to each other in (easy to grasp) French.
Director Anne Kaufman has to be praised for enabling four splendid actors to stay brilliantly true to the course of this roller coaster ride of temperaments, tempers and tantrums. Kaufman's staging is notably defined by its control of characters who are constantly in and out of control. Keller's tightly wound, almost scarily unpredictable performance keeps you guessing when and at what point will he reach the end of his tenuous rope. You won't be able to take you eyes off Dizzia who maneuvers manically through Abby's fear that she has wrongfully and selfishly manipulated her protector.
This may be Herzog's most gut-wrenching play. It is also a deeply compassionate exploration into why people will sometimes depart from what is rational, prudent and even sane to protect the ones they love.
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