Written by Amy Herzog
Directed by Anne Kauffman
At Steppenwolf Theatre
Some of the most tense must-watch minutes of theatre this summer.
Call it the ultimate solipsist’s nightmare. In a masterful work of ‘turn of the screw’ theatre, Amy Herzog’s Belleville calls up one of the greatest existential terrors a person can face—can we ever truly know anyone, even the people we’ve pledged our lives to? For that matter, how well can we know ourselves?
Abby (Kate Arrington) and Zach (Cliff Chamberlain) are twenty-somethings who have been married approximately six years, just long enough to develop the telltale itch that comes with changing from the people they were when they wed. Having met as her mother was dying, Abby is just now going off the anti-anxiety/anti-depressants she began taking at the time. An offhand dream of going to Paris has been realized four months prior to our meeting them, and the culture shock is adding to the strain on Abby’s high-strung psyche. In a reversal of coping strategies, Zach has begun chronically smoking marijuana to escape his wife’s increasing histrionics. As a part of Doctor’s Without Borders, Zach (seemingly) tries to maintain composure while his wife seems to thwart every attempt at cultural assimilation. Back in the States, Abby’s sister Meg prepares to have a baby, and the incessant ring of the phone with updates is a recurring motif throughout—a reminder that life is happening outside this attic apartment, that someone else is moving forward while they appear to be at a tense standstill. Few people don’t experience some degree of panic when they reach a certain age but not the milestones they expected to have reached by then.
As a sharp contrast to this dysfunction, the building supervisor Alouine (Chris Boykin)—also a non-native—smokes pot with Zach but is unable to let their friendship threaten his future when back rent remains mysteriously unpaid. Slightly younger than his two renters, there’s a telling exchange with Abby when she is surprised to learn that at just 25, he already has two kids and runs a building. It’s as though his life is an unflattering commentary on Zach and Abby’s drifting, frequently puerile marriage. His expressed belief in their sense of entitlement versus doing the work necessary is a larger comment on American Millenialism. Alouine’s wife Amina (Alana Arenas) is haughtily less than sympathetic to these two cultural interlopers, though we later discover even she doesn’t know her husband as well as she thought.
Revelations both startling and cruel abound throughout the short few days, as a push and pull of love and repulsion begins the dance macabre for Zach and Abby’s relationship. It’s a tribute to Kauffman’s direction that we remain sympathetic to this couple even as they are stripped of self-protective lies. Many of us have known couples like this, or had a friend who’s medication begged the perhaps unanswerable question “Where do you end and your condition begin?” Herzog’s script is whip smart, with a soul of Hitchcock brought into the 21st century’s obsession with achievement, runaway pharmaceuticals, and that conflict between the compromise of coupledom and the right of self-determination.
As if a great script wasn’t enough, what really amplifies this thriller to nail-biting levels is the performances. Arrington and Chamberlain craft a couple of disturbing realism fitfully trying to set a course to true identity while still trying to make a marriage born of a dubious premise work. Arrington hits highs and lows, and the audience is drawn into her roller coaster of perception as Chamberlain reveals his Zach as a man who is not the stalwart rock he can—or possibly even wants—to be. In a masterful set of understated performances, Arenas and Bokin create two stoically pragmatic people that never feel forced as the story’s commentary upon the central duo.
A few scant parts of the show are in French, which for the non-Francophiles in the audience may be a bit disconcerting. We are meant to infer at the dialogue from tone alone. Without giving too much away, a final scene is done almost in silence but for a little French, a quiet philosophical rebuke to the preceding. Perhaps I am laughably off, but I have to imagine the final words are a haunting question—something akin to “We won’t end this way, right?”or perhaps, more simply, “Do I know you?”
Reviewed by Clint May
Date Reviewed: July 6, 2013
For more info checkout the Belleville page on www.steppenwolf.org
At Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614, call 312.335.1650, or visit www.steppenwolf.org, tickets $20-78, Tuesdays thru Fridays 7:30pm, Saturdays & Sundays 3pm & 7:30pm, running time is 1 hour 40 minutes, through August 25.