Amy Herzog’s Belleville feels hollow at its heart—and not, to me, in the way it’s perhaps meant to. Rather than revealing the empty core at the heart of the American dream or the frightening void between two people who’ve lost their illusions about each other, the play seems to be simply about empty, vapid, fundamentally dishonest people, people who have folded under adversity and have been faking their way through their lives ever since. Now, their capacity for self-destruction is starting to creep outward and damage the lives of other people around them instead of only each other.
At the outset, it appears that Abby and Zack have the perfect life: he’s a promising young doctor who’s temporarily put aside his medical residency to do research with Doctors Without Borders on AIDS prevention in children; she’s living the expatriate dream, studying French and teaching yoga in the charmingly multiethnic Paris neighborhood of Belleville. They have a light-filled flat, and their burgeoning friendship with their landlords, Alioune and Amina—a young Senegalese Muslim couple who live downstairs—is testament to their open-mindedness and their embrace of their Parisian lifestyle. The only cloud on the horizon is that, due to some sort of visa snafu, they’re not able to go celebrate Christmas in the bosom of Abby’s close-knit family (which has grown even closer in the wake of her mother’s death a few years earlier); her sister is about to have a baby and Abby is anxious to be so far away from them.
But there are two big problems here: the first is that almost none of the above is entirely true, from small details (Abby has actually quit her French lessons, for example, because the teacher didn’t like her accent, blithely insisting that everyone speaks English anyway) to big-picture stuff like Zack’s job. The second, not unconnected, is that it’s almost immediately apparent how miserable both of them are, milliseconds away from turning on each other but covering that state of despair with a brittle shell of coziness and affection. And because of this, unfortunately, there’s not really any suspense in watching this marriage unravel, just a leaden inevitability to its doing so in front of you and a question of how ugly the fighting will get.
The cracks in this charmed life start to appear in the play almost immediately: in the first scene, Abby comes home early when her yoga class is canceled and finds Zack, who should be at work, closed in the bedroom masturbating in front of internet porn. Abby is weaning herself off an antidepressant, which incessantly makes her twitchy and on edge. Too, her anxiety about her family is almost pathological; she seems to spend hours on the phone with her family every day. Alioune needs to see Zack urgently because Zack’s problems—and Alioune’s sympathy with them—are starting to threaten his own partnership in his uncle’s business. And, like the famous axiom about Chekhov’s gun, once a large butcher knife appears on a bread board, it seems overwhelmingly likely to be used in some way more violent than slicing a baguette.
But as Abby and Zack’s marriage and their life together start to crumble, I found it impossible to care. Herzog and director Anne Kauffman don’t give me any reason to be invested in these people, who both seem frighteningly passive and self-absorbed, barely capable of acknowledging their own emotions and only able to address their considerable problems with evasions and lies. They seem, in fact, to be feeding each other’s problems with a constant diet of dishonesty and cowardice; they’ve been doing that since they agreed to get married and it starts to seem possible that they haven’t exchanged an honest word since. Yet although it’s clear that they feel trapped and we’re meant to feel an increasing sense of danger rising between them, I didn’t feel any real menace (even when Amina and Alioune seem to be corroborating a feeling of threat)—either could walk out the door at any minute without real risk.
There’s also a flatness to the production. It almost feels like Maria Dizzia (Abby) and Greg Keller (Zack) have been directed to restrain or hide their characters’ emotions, so much so that only twitches and tics are left. (As Amina and Alioune, Pascale Armand and Phillip James Brandon strike the right balance of pleasantry and suspicion in characters that are mostly a counterbalance to Abby and Zack.) There’s a way in which careful, slow reveals of information can be used to build exquisite tension, but here, the pacing just feels sluggish, letting tension drain rather than grow.
The trajectory of the play feels inevitable from the beginning; only the details of how things come apart are surprising (and the clues that lead to each specific revelation are well crafted, in hindsight). But when each of those details only makes me respect or care about the characters less, the ending, no matter how eventful, isn’t going to make me feel anything.