As many would know, Belleville means beautiful town. And likewise, many would know that behind the most charming or benign of names may lurk circumstances that belie the name. Uncovering what is behind this name provides for a suspenseful evening of psycho-thriller theater.
Zach and Abby are newly wed Americans, four months into an expatriate stint in France. Zach took a position with Doctors Without Borders in Paris as opposed to a medical residency in the States, and Abby teaches an occasional yoga class. They rent an apartment in the multicultural suburb of Belleville managed by Alioune, a mid-twentiesish Senegalese Muslim man.
From the outset, we wonder if all is well with the young couple. Soon, red flags fly. Abby is disgusted that no one showed for her yoga session, and returning home, she unexpectedly finds Zach. As the plot rolls out, we learn that Abby has been on antidepressants since the death of her mother but has gone off her meds and shows some signs of withdrawal – including possible paranoia about Zach’s comings and goings and relationships. Zach’s behavior toward Abby is manipulative. Although he routinely puts her desires before his own, Abby rebels, arguing that he is hard to love as he has no core of his own. At the same time, he is controlling, trying to keep her from what he considers to be harm. A clear signal that all is not well with Zach is that he leans on smoking weed to an unhealthy extent.
The couple argues often and in ways that playwright Amy Herzog understands are special to husband and wife (or equivalents thereof). The tone may be hostile and caustic, and the words may be demeaning – things that one wouldn’t say to a casual friend. But quickly, they make amends, calling each other homie and grabbing at each other in sexual prelude. That is not to say that the cuts from the insults ever totally heal.
In addition to issues of trust and candor, cross cultural matters arise, with both the longline French and the recent immigrant community. Abby finds the heritage French to be superconfident to the extent that she is intimidated buying groceries. And while there appears to be no bigotry in their communication with Alioune and his wife, Amina, Abby is uninformed and clumsy in dealing with them. Zach’s frequent weed smoking partner is Alioune, but it unclear whether Zach’s motive to socialize with Alioune is more a matter of availability or appeasement, as Zach is behind on the rent.
The script and M. Scott Graham’s directing are taut, and tension mounts throughout the play as incidents and revelations occur. Acting is strong across the board. Alisha Ehrlich as Abby runs the full gamut of emotions and gains sympathy for her character while still revealing an unstable and disturbing side. Justin Gillman as Zach emits an appropriate volume of unctuousness and menace to make his character discomforting. He is as opaque as she is transparent. Nick Sweeney and Nkechi Emeruwak are Alioune and Amina respectively, and they excel in their smaller roles.
“Belleville” by Amy Herzog is produced by Custom Made Theatre and plays on its stage at 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco through January 28, 2017.