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Belleville Review: Amy Herzog Turns Ugly

Belleville<br /><br />New York Theatre Workshop“To be an actress you have to love to suffer, and I only like to suffer,” Abby says near the beginning of Amy Herzog’s “Belleville,” now opened at the New York Theatre Workshop, which is why Abby has given up acting and is a yoga teacher, living with her physician husband in a diverse neighborhood of Paris known as Belleville.  It seems like a good life, the light of Paris streaking through their charming attic apartment, and they seem to be a lucky, appealing couple, especially as played by the charmers Greg Keller and Maria Dizzia. Abby and Zack are even friends with their landlord and downstairs neighbor, a smiling immigrant from Senegal played by Phillip James Brannon.

And so we laugh at her line about suffering. It is one of our last laughs. Belleville means “beautiful town,” but “Belleville” turns ugly.

“Belleville” evolves into a study of a troubled marriage, but the problem is, it doesn’t stop there.

Nothing is as it initially seems, although, in retrospect, there are disquieting signs from the start. Abby comes home early because no yoga students showed up, and stumbles into her bedroom to discover that Zack is masturbating to Internet porn, which is most shocking because he should be at work at Doctors Without Borders; why isn’t he?

Slowly, we learn one disturbing piece of information after another – they owe four months rent; she’s off her meds; he smokes pot an awful lot, and has a fondness for a large knife – which build up until there is an uneasy feeling that violence and menace threaten in ways we don’t quite fathom.

“Belleville” is nothing if not expertly executed, by a pitch-perfect four-member cast (every gesture in particular by Greg Keller seems exactly the right one); by a playwright we have come to admire for the precision of her insights in plays such as “4,000 Miles” and “After The Revolution”; and by a director, Anne Kauffman, who knows a thing or two about pacing. Kauffman also helmed “Detroit,” a play by Lisa D’Amour which similarly looks at a married couple with unexpected troubles, and which leads toward an almost surreal catastrophe. But “Detroit” delivered on its promise to show us a slice of what felt like a real America.

The track record of the theater artists involved in “Belleville” is exactly why the turn that Herzog’s play takes is disappointing. The play travels from what promises to be an un-blinkered look at a complex relationship to the makings of a melodrama or a thriller or even a horror story. I say “the makings,” because the play doesn’t even have the conviction of its own Grand Guignol intentions; it spins out into vagueness. This is the first play I’ve seen by Herzog that shows so little respect for the characters she has created; they get shoved aside for the purposes of a plot that is nowhere near as credible, vivid or interesting as the people who inhabit it.

Belleville

At the New York Theater Workshop, 79 East Fourth Street.

By Amy Herzog

Directed by Anne Kauffman; sets by Julia C. Lee; costumes by Mark Nagle; lighting by Ben Stanton; music and sound by Robert Kaplowitz; fight director, Jeff Barry; dialect coach, Deborah Hecht

Cast: Pascale Armand (Amina), Phillip James Brannon (Alioune), Maria Dizzia (Abby) and Greg Keller (Zack).

Running time: About 90 minutes without intermission

Ticket prices: $70

“Belleville” is scheduled to run through March 31.

Update: Belleville has been extended through April 14.

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About New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

8 Responses to Belleville Review: Amy Herzog Turns Ugly

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  2. Mary says:

    I enjoyed reading your intelligent and incisive review. I agree that the play is beautifully observed and acted.
    As for the melodramatic twists at the end, however, I’m pretty sure some of them are inspired a true story. I still didn’t anticipate how the story would end as it’s different from the other story in many ways, but it prepared me about some of the revelations at the end of the play. I don’t want to say what happened in the true story because I don’t want to spoil this play for anyone. If you’re interested, though, check out the book The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrere. Anyway, I think the fact that I knew the book made me accept the twists to which you refer.
    I also feel the ending wasn’t vague. Instead, it left me thinking and exploring the play on my own and with my friend. That’s the great thing about opinions, though. We all have ’em.
    Thanks again for this article!

  3. Chacun a son gout, as my mother used to say — to each his own. There is no mention in the program or any of the preview articles I read of “Belleville” being inspired by a true story. But even if it were, I don’t know that that would have lessened my disappointment at the shift in tone, and the sudden abandonment of the precision for which the playwright is justly praised. I would love to have seen these characters in a different play.

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  6. I believe your review wasn’t “ugly” enough. Belleville is poorly conceived and constructed. The characters’ back stories are completely unbelievable. A young, intelligent woman, no matter how neurotic, would realize her husband of six years had dropped out of medical after the first two years of their marriage? Puh-lease. This play would have been ripped to shreds in my graduate playwriting workshop. On top of the flimsy characters, Herzog uses the old theater cliche,not a smoking gun, but a big shiny knife. We know what Chekhov had to say…Finally, a third of the way through the play, the actress playing “Abby” breaks character to ask the audience if anyone knows who is responsible for irritating beep sounding on the house. I was shocked. Let the emt’s worry about the beep! It was disheartening to find out that the lead actress had less focus than those of us in the audience.
    I am beginning to suspect a cabal amongst ny theater critics and Yale drama produced plays.

    Thank you for an honest review.

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