Last week I finally had the chance to see a play that I’ve been anticipating from the time I first heard about it last year, Belleville (written by Amy Herzog and directed by Anne Kauffman), which also is easily the single best production I have seen all season long. The play concerns American expat couple Abby (played by Kate Arrington, who excels in the role), a yoga teacher, and Zack (Cliff Chamberlain), a physician who has moved to Paris to take a position as an AIDS researcher, who are renting a one-bedroom apartment from husband/wife landlords Alioune (Chris Boykin) and Amina (Alana Arenas) in Paris’s trendy Belleville neighborhood.
From early on, when Abby returns home from holiday shopping and finds her husband, (who has unexpectedly returned home from work early) alone in their bedroom, watching pornography, there is a palpable unease, or distance between the couple, something unspoken -- and this awkward encounter is the least of it. It doesn’t take very long for us to discover what that something is, however.
When Alioune comes up to their apartment, we begin to get a much closer look at what’s been taking place. It turns out that Zack has been keeping secrets. For starters, he is four months behind in paying rent, and they are now faced with the very real, imminent risk of eviction. As Alioune makes Zack aware, if he doesn’t receive payment by Friday of that week, they will be out on the street. (Yet another little fact that he decides to keep to himself.)
Other secrets abound as well. Whenever Zack is alone with Alioune -- usually smoking pot provided by Zack, a favorite pastime of both of theirs, and largely what keeps their “friendship” going -- he portrays himself as this poor, put-upon husband who has to deal with his hard-to-live-with wife. She, in his estimation, is unhappy all of the time and is far too attached to her father (Her calls to him, which he deems to be far too frequent, are another point of contention in their relationship.) In one conversation with Alioune, he even goes so far as to let him in on the fact that Abby had been on antidepressants for a time, and ever since she decided to go off of them, he has (disturbingly enough) fantasized about crushing and secretly putting them in her food, in order to make being with her more bearable. When they are together, however, a completely different (and completely false) Zack emerges. Playing the role of the happy husband, he never so much as hints that he is discontent in their marriage. And then suddenly, he seems nearly incapable of not regaling Alioune with his reminiscences of how he and Abby met back when they took a college course together.
But it is when they’re on their own, just Abby and Zack in their apartment, that we see the dysfunction on full display, particularly Zack’s (undeserved) contempt for Abby. In one instance, when Zack suggests to Abby that they ought to go out that evening (on a “D-A-T-E,” as he puts it), she seems to eagerly anticipate a nice evening out on the town. No sooner than she’s done getting dressed however, Zack appears compelled to "push her buttons" with no regard for her whatsoever, dredging up a past relationship that ended long ago, very nearly sabotaging the nice evening they planned together -- which, it may be argued, may have been his plan all along, especially given his real feelings about her.
Though having an argument from time to time is far from abnormal -- you can’t expect to agree on everything all of the time, right? -- Zack and Abby’s relationship seems to perpetually swing wildly between full-blown arguments to making up and back again in no time flat throughout -- perhaps a symptom of the resentment that exists, to a certain extent, on both sides -- and a desire (mainly Abby’s desire) to make their marriage work.
What really stood out to me in this play, however, are two things. The first is Zack’s complete lack of self-awareness. While he is most certainly ready, willing and able to put his finger on others’ faults (namely his wife’s), he seems completely blind to his own. He is, in fact, not -- as we learn during the course of the play -- at all who he represents himself to be, and more to the point, he is verbally and emotionally abusive towards Abby throughout the play. He even goes so far as to attempt to isolate and control her by taking her cell phone from her in order to prevent her from speaking with her father or, for that matter, with her sister back in the U.S., due to give birth to her first child at any moment. The other is the importance of being open and honest in relationships, be it with family members, with friends or one's significant other -- which is something that was stressed to me from early on, and is something that I personally have always believed in -- both about who you are and how you feel. Honesty, in other words, is not just the best policy, honesty should be the only policy. Unfortunately, that’s something that certainly didn’t happen with Zack and Abby, whose relationship (and marriage) was based on a lie and, you get the feeling, was a bit rushed overall. If you’re looking for an extraordinarily well-written, well-acted, edge-of-your-seat thriller that keeps you guessing until the very end, look no further.
Belleville runs through August 25, 2013 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company (1650 N. Halsted St. in Chicago). A post-show discussion follows every performance. To purchase tickets log onto www.steppenwolf.org or call Audience Services at 312-335-1650. For more information regarding Belleville, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the current season, upcoming 2013/14 season and much more, log onto www.steppenwolf.org.
Photos: Michael Brosilow