Sunday, March 03, 2013


A woman carrying a yoga mat comes home, drops her coat on the floor, starts stretching. She is startled to hear a noise in the bedroom when she is ostensibly alone. Her fear turns to annoyance when she discovers her husband--who is supposed to be at work--jerking off to a porn video.

This is our introduction to the couple at the center of Amy Herzog's odd, unsatisfying, but never uninteresting play Belleville, currently at the New York Theatre Workshop. We will soon see that they are Americans living in Paris, where the husband has an important position at Médecins Sans Frontières.  More importantly, we will learn that they are unraveling both as a couple and as individuals.

Abby (Maria Dizzia) has decided to go off her meds, leaving her particularly vulnerable to anxiety when her sister in the United States experiences a complication in her pregnancy. Abby would like nothing better than to fly to her sister--and to be able to celebrate Christmas at home--but she daren't leave. Zack (Greg Keller) made a mistake with their visas, and she might not be allowed back into France. Zack is concerned about Abby's decision not to take her meds and struggles with demons of his own.

The other two characters are their landlord Alioune (Phillip James Brannon), a French-Sengalese man with a matter-of-fact view of the world, and his wife Amina (Pascale Armand), who is even more matter of fact. They work hard. They take care of business, which is exactly what Abby and Zach cannot do.

Belleville is largely successful as a light thriller. Herzog metes out information carefully, keeping the audience in creepy semi-darkness for much of the show and utilizing French dialogue to add to the mystery/confusion (for those who do not speak French, anyway). It is an effectively disturbing piece.

Herzog also seems to be dissecting the self-focused triviality of entitled Americans abroad. But Amy and Zach are hardly representative Americans--they are specifically damaged people at a specifically difficult point in their lives.

As a thriller, Belleville is entertaining, but no big deal. As a piece of social commentary, it is unfair and unconvincing. And as an examination of the unraveling of a particular couple, it suffers from us never seeing them in a genuinely loving moment. Either we have to take it on faith that they were once a good couple, which is hard to do, or we have to accept them as having always had major problems that are now coming to a head, in which case it's hard to care. Perhaps if Dizzia and Keller had more chemistry together, they could overcome this deficit, but they don't. Ultimately Belleville is about an icky couple who spend 100 minutes getting ickier.

Herzog's recent play, The Great God Pan, is a superb piece. Belleville, although disappointing, is still the work of a first-rate playwright. I look forward to Herzog's next play.

(press ticket, seventh row, center)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Zzzz...if you thought this was a thriller, the subway must terrify you. Extremely unappealing characters--and then, to cap it off, ten minutes of silent housecleaning. (If you didn't see the show, I'm not kidding.) It was all I could do not to shout, you missed a spot!