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Theater review by David Cote. New York Theatre Workshop. By Amy Herzog. Dir. Anne Kauffman. With Maria Dizzia, Greg Keller. 1hr 40mins. No intermission.
The programs at New York Theatre Workshop always include a production chronology that is sometimes edifying, sometimes pompous (“Paula Vogel stubs her toe walking the grounds of Yaddo, prompting the addition of a sock-puppet narrator…”). Similar notes for Amy Herzog’s jagged and nerve-scraping Belleville tell us that she rewrote the piece many times over five years, adding and subtracting characters, retitling it—even ditching a stage effect shortly before the play’s 2011 world premiere at Yale Rep. First, it’s cool of Herzog and her director, Anne Kauffman, to be so transparent about the process. But also, I can see why the piece needed much tinkering: This is a precision clock; one muddled piece of information or one beat too slack, and its hideous machinery of ratcheted-up paranoia and dislocating horror won’t click into place.
At the risk of insulting two writers I respect, Belleville comes across as Herzog penning an Adam Rapp–style shocker, with the pulpy twists and violent denouement that entails. Only, Herzog has a slyer, gentler way with her characters; she lets them bleed from the inside out and makes us adore them before she flays them. Abby (Dizzia) and Zack (Keller) are a likable youngish couple, child-free Americans living in the Belleville banlieue of Paris. She’s a yoga instructor trying to maintain sanity while weaning herself off antidepressants. He’s working for a medical-research facility. There’s tension and some bickering, hints of past mental problems, nothing too drastic. But when their Senegalese-French landlord, Alioune (Phillip James Brannon), tells Zack in private that he must pay four months of back rent, you start to see the quicksand upon which this marriage rests.
Herzog goes to unexpectedly dark places in Belleville, but so organically and honestly (Dizzia and Keller own the sweet spot where charming meets hurting) that you are genuinely shocked by the extent of the damage. There are dangers abroad, of course, but most perilous can be the shadowy lump beside us in bed.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote