Belleville at Steppenwolf Theatre Company: Theater review

A couple of Americans in Paris see their lives unravel in Amy Herzog's unpredictable, breathless thriller.

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Kate Arrington and Cliff Chamberlain in Belleville at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Kate Arrington and Cliff Chamberlain in Belleville at Steppenwolf Theatre Company Photograph: Michael Brosilow

 


Paris is burning through the web of deceptions and half-truths that holds together a young American couple's marriage in Amy Herzog's brutally honest psychological thriller. To be sure, the thriller part sneaks up on you—through its first third, Herzog plays it close to the vest, disguising her work as a simple portrait of American entitlement abroad. Abby (Kate Arrington) and Zack (Cliff Chamberlain) met in college and married young; now they're stationed in a small apartment in the artsy Paris ’hood of the title for Zack's job researching pediatric AIDS.


Abby's feeling increasingly alienated in the neighborhood; she's quit her French classes because the instructor made fun of her accent, and no one's showing up to take the yoga class she's teaching. This is all revealed in the play's first scene, in which she walks in on Zack home early from work and indulging in a little online porn—an embarrassing turn the couple awkwardly plays off, but which suggests an unacknowledged distance in their relationship. And porn consumption isn't the only thing Zack's keeping from his wife, as we see when he confides in their Senegalese landlord (Chris Boykin), with whom Zack's struck up a friendship he may now be exploiting.


Still, this could all be a simple if well-observed portrait of bourgeois American relationship foibles—until the butcher knife comes out. Though the kitchen implement is first used to harmlessly slice a baguette, its mere presence amps up our apprehension. The playwright does the same in dropping additional details about Zack and Abby's past and present tensions: Abby's leash-like attachment to her dad's frequent phone calls, or that she's recently gone off her anti-depressant meds; that Zack can't seem to smoke enough bowls to deal with his wife's moods, or that he seems a little shaky on basic anatomical info.


Director Anne Kauffman, who helmed Belleville's 2011 premiere at Yale Rep as well as its New York debut earlier this year, calibrates the reveals with great precision and a smart use of space in scenic designer James Schuette's Parisian flat. The fluctuating distance between Zack and Abby in the long climactic scene helps ratchet up our trepidation, though the next turn is never telegraphed; the unpredictability of Herzog's plot is impressive and well-earned.


That Arrington and Chamberlain so convincingly occupy the complexities and charms of the couple's interplay, making us enamored enough to root for them before things start to unravel, is of course invaluable. As Arrington's mix of breezy and brassy gives way to self-destructive behavior and Chamberlain's handsomely affable mien betrays equal flickers of menace and terror, we buy into the combination of defeats and deceits that led them into this French tragedy. (Boykin's solemn landlord and Alana Arenas as his no-nonsense wife provide a handy moral contrast.)


Herzog, who's been carving out a space among her generation's most impressive and insightful crafters in plays like After the Revolution and 4000 Miles (which will have its Chicago premiere at Northlight Theatre in September), leaves open questions about the specifics of Zack and Abby's trajectory and its outcome; you could find yourself picking at loose threads. Yet my companion and I spent our postshow drinks debating the characters' choices not as implausibilities but as marks of their utterly human desire for wish fulfillment. Sometimes the most dangerous lies are the ones you allow yourself to believe.


 


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