So, how well do you know your lover? Can you really trust your husband? Your wife?
Implicitly, you say to yourself as you read. One would hope so. But every so often, the news media will throw up a story of someone living a complete lie, someone who fooled everyone, even those who knew (or thought they knew) that person in the most intimate ways. Those people interest the playwright Amy Herzog, whose widely acclaimed drama "Belleville" is currently in previews at the Steppenwolf Theatre.
"I am sure your relationship is an excellent one," the judicious playwright said by telephone earlier this week, speaking from her home in Brooklyn. "But in all relationships there are lies that are allowed to exist."
Herzog went on.
"It tends to be the men who are the liars in these situations," she said. "And when you read stories about them, they tend to be written in terms of the perpetrator and the victim. But who are these partners? They might not be equally to blame. But there are situations, surely, where you have a feeling that something is not right, where there ought to be some of kind of guarding against something, whatever it is; where you should be asking questions."
"Belleville," which premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre and had its New York premiere earlier this year at the New York Theatre Workshop, will star Kate Arrington and Cliff Chamberlain at the Steppenwolf. It is about a marriage built on lies, and the unraveling of same. But it's not written, Hollywood-style, as some initially perfect coupling that unravels in a series of horrendous revelations. Rather, it's about the more quotidian battle between intimacy and doubt, a combination surely not unfamiliar to some of those who will show up with their partner at the Steppenwolf.
"Belleville" is about Americans but it's set in Paris — city of love, not betrayal. Well, so we're all conditioned to think.
"I am really very interested in the Paris of the American imagination," Herzog said. "You know, a place where extraordinary people do extraordinary things. We all have a very strange, outdated view of the city, which is stuck in a certain place in the American imagination. It's not a place where extraordinary young artists flock now. I'm not sure they ever did."
Herzog is, without question, one of a small group of hot young writers for the American theater. She's worked mostly on the East Coast to date, although her play "After the Revolution" was a huge hit last season for the Next Theatre in Evanston, and her drama "4000 Miles" (recently published by the Theatre Communications Group) is part of the upcoming season at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie. Both of those plays feature characters based on members of Herzog's extended family, and they both deal to some extent with old leftists, their complex legacies and their impact on future generations of their families. Herzog said she has returned to that wheelhouse for her next new play.
But "Belleville" is something quite separate. It has its origins in an earlier impulse — Herzog said she wrote the first two drafts, both of which she threw away, before penning "After the Revolution" and just as she was graduating from the Yale School of Drama. The first draft, she said, was too farcical. The second felt more like something that belonged somewhere other than the theater. So the project was put aside.
"But I remained obsessed," Herzog said. "I had, like, this primal fear that people are so unknowable."
This will be the third major Chicago production of a Herzog play. "My parents lived in Chicago for the year before they got married," she said. "So we all have this very romantic notion of Chicago ... like Paris."
When: In previews, opens July 7 and runs through Aug. 25
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St.
Price: $20-$78 at 312-335-1650 and steppenwolf.org