Theater Review: BELLEVILLE (Pasadena Playhouse)

by Tony Frankel on May 10, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles

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SPLITSVILLE

Five years after its world premiere, L.A. is just now getting Amy Herzog’s disturbing domestic thriller. Both praised and not, the controversy with this one-act has been more over the playwright’s construction — Herzog writes herself into a corner — than the subject matter. Was it worth the wait? For the first hour and a half of this 105-minute torquing, taut, tantalizing, twisting tale — absolutely. If the story had been more profound and detailed along the way, we would have left fully devastated. As it stands we get shaken, excited, and horrified (Chekhovian advice is heeded when a large kitchen knife makes the scene; there will be blood), but unfortunately we are left pondering an ending that fizzles out, not the relationship. While the plotline is less substantial than one might expect or desire, Belleville still satisfies as a dark drama.

In designer David Meyer’s hipster bohemian apartment with French doors that open to a cityscape of the rooftops in the gentrifying outskirts of Paris, young American couple Zack (Thomas Sadoski) and Abby (Anna Camp) lead a seemingly enviable life. Zack works for Doctors Without Borders, and Abby gets by as a yoga instructor while pursuing an acting career. Sure, Zack has a habit of skipping out of work early to smoke a few bowls (right at the top, his wife catches him jerking off to porn in their bedroom), and Abby is struggling to get off depression meds after her mother’s death – but after five years of marriage, these two are still young and in love. What could possibly go wrong?

Naturalism gives way to a heightened psychodrama as Herzog calculatedly peels back the lies between Zack and Abby. And it’s not just that they are intrinsically troubled: they’re cut off from everyone they know. Moving to Paris tore out any roots that could ground them in more than each other’s sad silences. The couple is hopelessly entangled: physically and emotionally dependent on their erratic, untrustworthy other half.

Observing these failing lovers — and representing a very different culture clash — is another couple from another world. But they fit in where the Yankees do not. Successfully transplanting themselves from Senegal to France, Afro-French Alioune (Moe Jeudy-Lamour) and his traditional Muslim spouse Amina (Sharon Pierre-Louis) are their uneasy neighbors and landlords. Since the two somewhat ugly Americans owe back rent, these twenty-somethings find little to admire in Zack and Abby.

It’s a credit to director Jenna Worsham that the intimate show works as well as it does in the large Pasadena Playhouse, but even as she keeps our attention, she doesn’t always seem as concerned with beats and pace, which perhaps is why the ending leaves a bad taste in our mouth. In a tagged-on scene that seems to exist merely as a way to diffuse the gripping scenes that came before, Herzog doesn’t give us a satisfying resolution to begin with. Worsham could have ratcheted up the tension like an ever-building roller coaster, but she sometimes allows steam to escape from the pressure cooker (when Abby asks Alouine how Muslims celebrate Christmas, he showed patience when something like disgust would have fueled the moment). Still, Worsham knows how to up the ick factor (aided by Zach Blane’s haunted house light effects and John Zalewski’s creepy sound), and it’s a wonder that brave actors Camp and Sadowski can repeat each night’s jangling journey.

photos by Philicia Endelman

Belleville
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena
Wed-Fri at 8; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 2
ends on May 13, 2018
for tickets, call 626.356.7529 or visit Playhouse

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