“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.
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.