‘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.