So much could go wrong in staging Amy Herzog’s deceptively simple Belleville, which opened at New York Theater Workshop in 2013 before moving to London’s Donmar Warehouse late last year. Set in a single location, it lacks plot but is graced with a deft mix of humor, pathos, mental illness and marital strife. Depending on the approach, it could be a crushing bore or an over-the-top melodrama, but the new production under the watchful eye of director Jenna Worsham is an arresting portrait of a troubled marriage founded on neediness and lies. As portrayed by Anna Camp (Pitch Perfect), Abby is a woman defined by boundless wanting, while Thomas Sadoski (The Newsroom) makes Zack a man driven by his need to be needed.
Sometimes a stubbed toe can turn into something worse than a minor pain. It can fester and bleed, the nail falls off and, when left untreated, can lead to amputation. When Abby stubs her toe in the early going, medical researcher Zack tends to it. But the minor injury festers, leaving her hobbling about, out of rhythm, just like their marriage.
Abby used to be an actress but gave it up because “to be an actor you have to love to suffer, and I only like to suffer,” she explains. So Zack works while she teaches yoga to nobody, which is why she comes home early one day after being confronted with an empty classroom only to be surprised that her bedroom is not empty. Zack is in there with his laptop, watching porn. She screams and runs from the room. He is duly embarrassed but defensive, asking, “Don’t you think your reaction is a little Victorian?”
Yes, she overreacts, but the bigger question is what is he doing home on a weekday afternoon. A visit from the Senegalese landlord Alioune (an endearing Moe Jeudy-Lamour in a naturalistic performance) elicits the American couple’s backstory, which is ham-handedly woven into the scene. In one of the play’s oversights, Alioune and his wife Amina (Sharon Pierre-Louis) are barely fleshed out, serving mainly as an expositional sounding board from which we learn that Abby and Zack married five years ago, following the death of her mother, and moved to Paris so he could pursue pediatric AIDS research.
Abby has always wanted to live in Paris, although you wouldn’t know it by the way she talks about the superior attitude of Parisians. The fact is she hates it there and wants to return to her family for the upcoming holidays. Her sister is about to give birth and she’s been getting updates from her father over the phone, which she clutches like a lifeline. They could just fly home but owe four months’ rent and are about to be evicted. That last part Zack has kept from her, not wanting to test her fragile emotional equilibrium, made more fragile by the fact that she has been off her meds for a while. The last time she tried that, there was blood.
Camp manages a considerable challenge with this initially off-putting character, cultivating her vulnerability and essential sweetness and then effortlessly transitioning from humor to tragedy and back again throughout. As her condition worsens, Zack keeps her phone, which she cries out for, often substituting the word “daddy.” The phone has a counterpart in a baby monitor that Amina uses to keeps tabs on her sick child.
At first, it appears that Zack is a sobering force in Abby’s life, always coddling, always agreeing and forever backing down in the face of whatever minor outrage she imagines. If his overweening is his way of expressing love, it might also prove to be the unwinding of their marriage. And then there’s the carving knife — used first for slicing bread, then as a surgical implement as Abby drunkenly attempts to rid herself of that infected toenail, and lastly, as an instrument of death.
Any substantial issues with Belleville are found in the finale. If Herzog has a signature style, it is in her blend of comedy and drama in plays like 2011’s 4000 Miles, for which she was a Pulitzer finalist. Her uncomplicated dialogue brims with wit and subtext, always hardwired to her characters’ emotions and personalities. With Belleville she paints a specific portrait of a couple with problems all their own, but relatable in their overlap with commonalities we all share. Her play is a process of revealing, pulling back the layers until, by the end, the audience has a fuller understanding of who they have been watching.
Herzog’s intuitive grasp of character is counterbalanced by a near complete lack of story, which is why, as the roughly 95-minute running time winds down, she struggles to arrive at an appropriate ending. What she comes up with is less than satisfying but strong enough to do no harm to the more inspired earlier scenes.
Director Jenna Worsham delivers seamless work, guiding her riveting lead actors through the play’s humor, pathos and mortal danger. She is helped by scenic designer David Meyer’s accommodating one-bedroom apartment. A staircase stage right, by which performers enter from below stage, leads to a landing and the front door behind which lies a living room with tall dormer windows offering a dingy view of the Paris quarter that gives the play its title.
Herzog chose the French capital, but her play could take place anywhere two people feel desperate and isolated. As with all successful drama, it is less the location that matters than the landscape of the mind. In Belleville, Herzog takes us to exotic, whimsical and dangerous places without ever leaving the apartment.
Venue: Pasadena Playhouse, Pasadena
Cast: Anna Camp, Thomas Sadoski, Moe Jeudy-Lamour, Sharon Pierre-Louis
Director: Jenna Worsham
Playwright: Amy Herzog
Set designer: David Meyer
Costume designer: Sar Ryung Clement
Lighting designer: Zach Blane
Music and sound designer: John Zalewski
Presented by Pasadena Playhouse