Theater Review: ‘Belleville’

March 21, 2013 11:52 pm Last Updated: June 24, 2015 8:44 pm

 NEW YORK—Playwright Amy Herzog offers up some interesting situations and tantalizing questions in her new work “Belleville,” now at the New York Theatre Workshop. Sadly, she doesn’t always include answers to go with the queries presented—the result is both the play’s strength and its undoing. 

In Belleville, Paris, Abby (Maria Dizzia) and Zack (Greg Keller) are a young American couple very much in love. This is not to say they don’t have problems; neither has that firm a grip on reality. 

Abby is battling a host of crippling emotional issues and has apparently tried to kill herself in the past. As for Zack, he may be a bit of a pothead as well as a compulsive liar. He hasn’t told Amy that rent on their apartment hasn’t been paid for four months, much to the ire of their landlord Alioune (Phillip James Brannon) and his wife Amina (Pascale Armand). 

What Herzog seems to be going for is the slow disintegration of the American dream, one which is turning into a nightmare for Abby and Zack. Either would seemingly do anything for the other, yet neither honestly faces the morass their lives have become. They’re caught in a downward spiral where desperation and violence may be the only solution. 

The presence of a large butcher knife, as well as rather big living room windows that overlook the street, seems more and more ominous as the show progresses.

However, the more things are revealed, the more they remain unexplained. This process ultimately causes the audience not only to fail to connect with the characters, but with the story as well. 

For example, there is a scene where Zack breaks into Alioune and Amina’s apartment, but for what purpose? Is he looking for drugs, trying to steal money, or commit a still darker crime? We never know for sure. 

Also hinted at but quickly dropped is Zack’s relationship with Alioune, who sometimes joins Zack in getting high. 

Then there’s the play’s final scene, one which screams for a definitive ending, but rather simply unfolds without really addressing what has just gone before. 

According to notes in the show program, the conclusion was altered by Herzog and director Anne Kauffman while in rehearsal, so both must equally share the blame for this last creative misstep. 

To be fair, the script does offer up some loaded possibilities in the area of just who is telling the truth and whom one can trust, but the story sits on the fence for so long—not wanting to commit either way—that it becomes difficult to care about what finally happens.

Keller is initially endearing as Zack, but quickly turns annoying due to the fact that his actions seem to have no reasons for much of the show. Since we don’t understand his motives until the very end, we cannot root for him, a character who could be either a likable loser or a psychopathic schemer. 

This continuous shading, however, does actually work in Abby’s case. Dizzia effectively takes her from a state of constant fragility and blissful naiveté to one of righteous rage. Yet since she’s mostly a reactive character, she is hamstrung by a script that leaves her little to do but be carried along in Zack plans.

Brannon and Armand are okay in their roles, but exist only for the occasional plot point, and in Brannon’s case, to offer a potential red herring in regard to Zack’s attempts to keep his illusion of happiness alive. 

As with Zack and Abby, their final scenes offer a potential of something the playwright is trying to say, but come off as ultimately unfulfilling.

Kauffman’s direction works in setting up the story and imbuing it with a quiet tension overall, but it can’t negate the convoluted feeling that eventually permeates the entire play. There are also several scenes that go on for too long, the monotony broken by emotional outbursts and recriminations before settling in again.

New York Theatre Workshop
79 East 4th Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com
Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Closes: April 14

Julia C. Lee’s set of Zack and Abby’s apartment works well, offering a nice lived-in but Spartan look. Costumes by Mark Nagle are fine, and the lighting by Ben Stanton is nicely atmospheric. 

Ostensibly a story about the lengths people go to protect what they love, or at least the illusion of what they love, “Belleville” ultimately fails to deliver on its potential.

Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.