‘Belleville’: down & out in Paris

Amy Herzog's stage thriller about modern Ugly Americans in decline gets fine performances from Third Rail, but to what end?

Belleville is something of a head-scratcher, and not because it’s structured like a mystery-thriller. Third Rail Rep’s new production of Amy Herzog’s tense drama, which premiered in 2011 at Yale Rep and opened off-Broadway a year later, has so much going for it: a good director, a fine cast, a simple but smartly playable set by Kristeen Willis Crosser in the intimate CoHo Theatre, a space designed to slash the distance between audience and performers and heat things up. But Belleville, it seems, is just by nature a chilly play.

Lamb and Lingafelter: in love from tip to toe? Photo: Owen Carey

Lamb and Lingafelter: in love from tip to toe? Photo: Owen Carey

The irony of the title is that Belleville isn’t such a beautiful town, if by “beautiful” you mean sweet and safe and predictable. It’s a vibrant, multiracial, working-class district of Paris, the sort of place where people tend to make a life instead of visit on vacation. Abby (Rebecca Lingafelter) and Zack (Isaac Lamb) are doing both, sort of. Young married Americans in their late 20s, they’ve uprooted from New Jersey so that Zack can take a job with Physicians Beyond Borders. Every day he heads in to do vital work on AIDS research, except when he doesn’t. Amy, who’s an actress, starts giving yoga lessons to keep busy and make a little money, but that’s not working out so well, maybe because she’s stopped taking French lessons (her language instructor kept laughing at her accent) and so can’t really communicate with her students. Plus, as the play begins she walks into their apartment and discovers Zack deep in a solo encounter with a porno internet site. This doesn’t help Abby’s mental state, which is already a little off-kilter because she’s gone off her anti-depression meds. And, as things turn out, Zack, who spends an inordinate amount of time with his pot pipe, hasn’t paid the rent in four months, and although Abby doesn’t know it, they’re about to get the heave-ho. So, no: not so beautiful.

Belleville is about the breakdown of what seems to be a solid, happy marriage. Little secrets begin tumbling out, things that both Zack and Abby have kept private from the other, and over the 100-odd minutes of the play they become an emotional avalanche. Or, to use another metaphor, eventually the elephants in the living room are so huge it’s tough to believe no one’s spotted them, or at least felt moved to mention them. I would tell you what those secrets are, except they’re so integral to the plot that they’d be spoilers. I will reveal that when that gleaming chef’s knife came out of the kitchen, thoughts of Chekhov’s dictum about the gun on the wall sprang to mind (if you see it in the first act, it had better go off by the third) and I was relieved when the play at least didn’t go all Psycho on our heads, especially given that characters were taking showers and baths offstage. And speaking of elephants, there’s one Big Reveal that’s so immense I found it difficult to swallow. Not impossible: strange things happen in life. Still, it requires a giant leap of faith, and Herzog’s script doesn’t do a lot to make me want to take it. The big twist feels contrived to drive an increasingly unlikely plot, not constructed to illuminate the characters of the people the performers are playing.

Lingafelter and Lamb, as anticipated, give lively, liquid performances – it’s a matchup that should have local theater fans drooling – and Philip Cuomo directs them with a quick sure rhythm, neatly gliding through the play’s sharp corners. Lingafelter is sharp and nervous and babbling, avoiding contact by talking through it incessantly: she’s edgy and abrasive but also vulnerable, more than a little at a loss. Lamb uses his sweet-guy persona to fine effect, gradually undermining his affability to reveal some huge flaws in Zack’s character: Is it possible that he’s nothing but a giant slacker? In the end, neither Abby nor Zack is very likable, and for actors as skilled and empathetic as Lamb and Linkafelter, finding that chill zone is a technical accomplishment.

Fabre and DeGroat: trouble with the renters. Photo: Owen Carey

Fabre and DeGroat: trouble with the renters. Photo: Owen Carey

A lot of things are bouncing around inside this tightly sprung but thematically unruly play. At times Abby and Zack seem like updated versions of the Ugly American, thinking themselves on a great adventure but sprawling all over the culture they’re visiting, oblivious to its habits and customs and beliefs. At times it seems they’re the eternal American children, wrapped in a fantasy of complacency and privilege, unwilling or unable to grow up. Their loosey-goosey approach to life, shirking responsibilities, papering over problems with a drink and a wink, stands in stark contrast to the lives of their landlords, Senegal-born Alouine (Ricardy Fabre) and his French-Senegalese wife, Amina (Chantal DeGroat). It’s telling that in spite of their decidedly supporting roles in the play, I find Alouine and Amina’s story in many ways more interesting than Abby and Zack’s. They are European Muslims, even younger than Abby and Zack but obviously more mature, and already parents of two children. Fabre in particular creates a fascinating character, a young Muslim man drawn to certain sorts of Western “decadence” – he happily shares Zack’s pot pipe, and knows all about the porn sites – but ultimately a man of honor and a firm code of belief. Fabre and DeGroat do a fine job of injecting some intriguing possibilities into the play, but the script leaves their characters as underdeveloped suggestions. I wish they had bigger roles: maybe the friendship and misunderstandings between an American and a Muslim couple would have provided the emotional and intellectual center that the play seems to lack.

Herzog leaves a great big question mark at the end, and it’s an interesting one. Who is weak and who is strong? Does one drag down the other, or are Abby and Zack locked in an embrace of complementary weaknesses that eventually sinks them both?

Belleville has been a controversial play from the beginning. Christopher Isherwood in the New York Times (an “extraordinarily fine new play”) and Richard Zoglin in Time magazine (“a ticking time bomb with a muffled explosion at the end”) greeted it with raves. Many other critics have been far less impressed. At the other extreme from Isherwood and Zoglin, the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Andrea Simakis called it “one of the most pretentious plays I’ve seen in years.” I’d call it, rather, a missed opportunity by a skilled writer. I don’t know what the drama’s development process was. But it has the feel of a play that’s been workshopped smooth, melodramatically pumped up, and blessed with sharp scene changes that gloss over something never settled at the core. I spent opening night admiring some fine, unsettling performances. But as Abby and Zack’s lives dropped off the edge of the earth, alas, I didn’t really much care.

*

Third Rail Rep’s production of Belleville continues Wednesdays-Sundays through April 18 at CoHo Theatre, 2257 N.W. Savier St. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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