Amy Herzog's play "Belleville" begins with a young American in Paris arriving home in the middle of the day to find her husband, the husband she thought was at work as a junior physician, sitting at his computer, consuming pornography.
This ironically titled play — the Paris of "Belleville" is a city of neither lights nor love but of confusion and marital unraveling — is not the first play to consider Internet porn. But the way in which it is handled is indicative of Herzog's formidable skills as a writer. Caught red-handed, Zack (Cliff Chamberlain) is embarrassed. But the marriage that concerns this drama is not yet old enough for him to really know how his beautiful wife, Abby (Kate Arrington), will react. Indeed, Herzog makes very clear that Abby, an intense if well-meaning 20-something with destructive issues of her own, does not yet know how to react.
Does this indicate she married a secretive sleaze or just a regular guy taking advantage of harmless technological pleasure? Does being a cool wife require she be nonchalant, perhaps even encouraging, or should this be a moment to draw some assertive line? Is this symptomatic of a sexual deficiency, a failing in wifely marital duties, of her own? Or is this a telling clue that her seemingly charming husband, also an American adrift from the familiarity of home and trying to find himself in a snooty country, is not what he seems in all kinds of ways?
Luckily for the director, Anne Kaufmann, Arrington is perfectly capable of flicking through all of those colors of neuroses and indecision without the script requiring her character to say very much more than "Hi." And this inciting incident has another advantage: It's just shocking enough for schadenfreude and just ubiquitous enough that a good portion of the audience either is remembering when something like this happened to them or contemplating what the fallout will be when it does.
So "Belleville" has you at that "Hi." And for the next 105 minutes or so, it maintains that hold on its audience without ever leaving the same Parisian apartment, mostly because you know that something is up with this somewhat empathetic, somewhat terrifying couple, yet precisely what is up (I'll try not to give it away) is metered out by Herzog only in very careful bites of information (James Schuette's clever set has quiet, little revelations of its own).
Abby's sister is having a baby back in the States, which means she is calling home a lot, giving us clues to her family and her past. We see that Zack likes to hang with the guy who lives in the building and manages Zack and Abby's apartment, a seemingly kind French-African man named Alouine (Chris Boykin, who underplays and thus shrewdly adds to the enigma) in a very different kind of marriage to Amina (Alana Arenas).
Women are called upon to judge men a lot in "Belleville" (finding them wanting, for the most part), and when you are looking for an actress with both moral authority and the ability to shoot wordless daggers of contempt at males behaving badly, you are looking for Arenas, whose performance acts here as a kind of moral center. This is true even as Abby and Zack oscillate in their mutually destructive force field of sex, lies and self-indulgence, with Arrington, it feels, reaching for all of her character's highs and bringing her down to meet some terrifying lows.
This play, first produced at the Yale Repertory Theater in 2011, was a big hit in New York shortly thereafter, not least because it combines the nomenclature and the narrative tension of a Hitchcockian thriller set against the backdrop of a relationship filled with subterfuge and still manages to be a sympathetic portrait of the early potholes of marriage and an astute exploration of one of life's most common and horrific traps: the peril of one day waking up and finding yourself inextricably linked to someone you do not really know.
If married people will recognize Herzog's acute sense of the soul-swallowing pitfalls of the early years, so too will single people shudder at its understanding of the potential dangers of hooking up with someone you really don't know, however much it feels like you do. That's a broad spectrum of date-night theatergoers, and "Belleville" thus should do well for Steppenwolf this summer as a premiere adult night out in a sultry town. And one wouldn't be surprised if someone filmed this very commercial script. Saturday night, a lot of people around me were talking back to the play.
What you want most in shows like this is never to be pulled out from the narrative by not believing. And both the play and Kaufmann's tense, adroit, nuanced, deftly cast production manage that feat all the way until the last few minutes, when Zack is forced to show more of his hand and has a rapid descent all of his own. The careful pacing and staging suddenly look stilted and less credible — whenever a big knife is being waved around onstage for too long, it can easily stab through many past minutes of apparent truth — and you find yourself not entirely believing, or recognizing, the actions of Chamberlain's Zack. It's the script's rush for a climax that sparks the challenge — Herzog, a whopping young talent, will go on to write yet-finer plays where the pain retains more of its quotidian drip without compromising the drama — but you wish the director and actor still would go back to work on those last few minutes, since Chamberlain's work otherwise is so strong.
You believe he could seduce this needy Abby, and yet you immediately catch what she missed. In other words, you're both ahead of and right alongside the dissembling, despairing characters in this play, which makes for a very juicy night of theater.
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When: Through Aug. 25
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre,
1650 N. Halsted St.
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 mins.
Tickets: $20-$78 at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.org