“Belleville,” the new play by Amy Herzog currently at the Yale Repertory Theatre, unsettles at first sight.
The contemporary bourgeois bohème apartment of Zack (Greg Keller) and Abby (Maria Dizzia) sits on the stage as though directly transplanted from the Rue de Belleville in Paris, complete with broken neon signs and the sounds of the street outside. The extreme realism distances the audience from the couple, forcing them to peer voyeuristically into the life of a couple with much to hide from others and each other.
Overwhelming intimacy is the dominating theme of the play. As recently married Americans searching for fulfillment in Paris, Zack and Abby’s life together is tenuously, painfully hip in a way that barely qualifies as a marriage. The eccentricity of their life — which includes using a chef’s knife as multi-tool, kitschy gifts and decorations, vitriolic conversational “asides,” and low-grade drug addiction — contrasts with the unflappably reasonable landlords downstairs, Alioune (Gilbert Owuor DRA ’07) and Amina (Pascale Armand).
The juxtaposition is most evident in their first two scenes together: Abby launches into a profusely apologetic soliloquy as soon as she remembers that she is serving Christmas cookies to the Muslim Alioune, while Greg reacts with passive aggression to his landlord’s demand for back rent. The only visible playing space is the couple’s tiny living room, trapping the audience like visitors neither entirely expected nor welcome.
The actors frequently disappear into the apartment’s other rooms to hide from each other’s prying eyes. Everyone in the play has their secrets, but Zack begins to control the lives of those around him in an effort to protect his own.
Keller plays Zack as a brilliant shapeshifter. By turns, he plays the lovable frat boy, the saccharine and patronizing husband, and the maniacal con man. Yet he never fails to elicit sympathy, even in his darkest and least forgivable moments, and he shows a sweet, sad longing for love that motivates all of his horrible machinations. Dizzia is not quite as convincing, however, as her more challenging moments — having to play a convincing blackout drunk performing surgery on a toenail, for example — seem underdeveloped. In spite of this, her tender moments toward the end of the play are a resounding success, mirroring Zack’s longing for a stable love buried underneath many layers of neuroses and fear.
The creative team did universally excellent work. Mark Nagle DRA ’12 designed costumes that suited the characters splendidly well. In Alioune’s dress, the slight strangeness of mainstream European clothes to American eyes is handled particularly well.
The lights and set created by Nina Hyun Seung Lee DRA ’12 and Julia Lee DRA ’12, respectively, were at once effective in evoking the right emotions and yet unobtrusive to the actors’ performances.
Director Anne Kauffman allowed the actors to truly shine, but confusion mired her direction of the play’s ending. The final two scenes — which Kauffman changed constantly through previews — show what appears to be an ambiguous death for Zack followed by a short scene that contains only a few lines in French, of Alioune and Amina cleaning the apartment after the couple has vacated. Though the death was confusing, the French was simple enough to understand with the most basic of high school grammar.
The scene reinforces how out of place the couple is in their adopted home, because when we see the French couple conversing in their native tongue, we are reminded that Zack and Abby fail to assimilate — as Amina states in an earlier scene, she only spoke French around them so that they can practice their language skills. The couples never share any common ground, linguistic or otherwise.
The production as a whole is a resounding success and an admirable premiere of Herzog’s exciting new work. Through a jagged hole in their apartment, we can look closely enough at Zack and Abby’s life to see the cracks in the façade they have worked so hard to craft.