In her acclaimed plays 4000 Miles and After the Revolution Amy Herzog’s characters face moral dilemmas, particularly concerning the conflict between loyalty to the state and loyalty to family. In Belleville, Herzog’s characters face moron dilemmas, as in how to survive in the face of idiotic decisions. It is done with the same attention to detail and the same tuneful ear to dialogue that characterizes all of Herzog’s work, and Studio Theatre plays the hell out of it. It’s just that, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, there’s no there there.
This play is full of surprises, and so I need to tread carefully in spinning out the story’s ground of being. Abby (Gillian Williams) and Zack (Jacob H. Knoll) are Americans in Paris (or, more specifically, the Parisian working-class neighborhood of Belleville). He’s a doctor working through Doctors Without Borders on a pediatric AIDS project; she’s an actor-cum-yoga instructor who is trying to wean herself off of the antidepressants she started taking after the death of her mother – five years ago.
They live together blissfully in a lovely apartment (and I’m not kidding; Debra Booth’s set is fantastic, particularly at the window, where it meets Peter West’s lighting design) owned by their downstairs neighbors, Alioune (Maduka Steady) and Amina (Joy Jones). There are a few snakes in their paradise – for some reason, if they leave France they won’t be able to get back in, and there is a little problem with the rent – but they are, really, garter snakes. They won’t hurt anybody and they’re probably good for the relationship.
A good three-quarters of the play deals with the quotidian issues in any marriage: frequency of sex; extravagance (hers); dope-smoking (his); the imminent birth of her sister’s child; whether her dad is overprotective. Christmas gifts. Date night. Blouses. And then the bad things happen.
Closes October 12, 2014
1501 14th St. NW
1 hour 40 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $20 – $78
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At the core of the play’s explosive climax (followed by a melancholy final scene done entirely in French) is an act so staggeringly stupid that we lose respect not only for the character who committed the act but to the character’s partner, for not sussing it out earlier. Herzog says that she studied Gaslight, the movie version of Patrick Hamilton’s Angel Street, to get the elements of suspense right in her play. But Gaslight was a story about a criminal whose every act was designed to deceive his wife. Belleville is about a blunderer and a codependent partner.
And so throughout the play we see tiny clues to the story’s central dilemma, but mostly we see their everyday life. This, unlike Gaslight, is not a mystery which anyone is trying to solve until the matter is out of hand. And when we get done with the bad things, we are left with no greater understanding, no insight. The characters may have changed from the opening scene, but we haven’t.
The frustrating thing is that this whole production is done beautifully. All four actors are fabulous; every moment themselves and every moment convincing. Herzog’s language is absolutely authentic; there is not a false note in the play; she deals with exposition in a completely natural way. Her characters are beautifully developed, with full lives, but they do not clutter the play with their details. Director David Muse conjures the fictive dream powerfully and the production would be a joy to behold except that most of it is about something which isn’t all that interesting and the rest is about somebody who isn’t all that bright.
Belleville by Amy Herzog . Directed by David Muse assisted by Nathan Norcross . Featuring Gillian Williams, Jacob H. Knoll, Maduka Steady and Joy Jones . Set design: Debra Booth . Lighting design: Peter West . Costume design: Alex Jaeger . Sound design: Ryan Rumery . Fight director: Robb Hunter . Dialect coach: Gary Logan . Stage manager: John Keith Hall . Produced by Studio Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
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