Chicago Theater Review: BELLEVILLE (Steppenwolf)

by Lawrence Bommer on July 10, 2013

in Theater-Chicago

ISOLATION AND INSANITY

There’s a good reason for no intermission in this devilishly deceptive Belleville. It’s taut to a torque as it depicts a young American couple’s disintegration in an elegant one-bedroom apartment in a cosmopolitan quartier of Paris. Amy Herzog’s 2011 Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema LA review of Amy Herzog’s “Belleville” – Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicagothriller is as powerful in its silences as its speech. Once the laughter dries up and the audience discovers how deeply disturbed this cute duo really are, you almost can hear a pin drop. It’s easy to dwell on the edge of your seat. Or it’s like helplessly watching a train wreck or car crash in slow motion. It’s so real that these clichés fit.

Anne Kaufman’s Steppenwolf staging, a Chicago premiere in the downstairs theater, never lets up. This is a tailspinning nightmare where you don’t wake up.

Adding to the disconnect is how much of Herzog’s dialogue consists of defensive lies spewn out by strangers who managed to get married. Nothing but James Schuette’s showroom set, with French doors opening up to a cityscape of Parisian roofs, is as it seems.

We learn that Zack (Cliff Chamberlain) is a medical student who gave up a profitable residency because his wife Abby (Kate Arrington) said she wanted to see Paris—which he took as a desire to move there. Receiving a gift she never wished for, Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema LA review of Amy Herzog’s “Belleville” – Steppenwolf Theatre in ChicagoAbby feels isolated and homesick: Clinging to her cell phone, she desperately calls her clan to keep up with her sister’s much more successful pregnancy and to feel less alone in this ghost of a marriage.

Each pursues a characteristic dead end: Zack is addicted to pot, while mentally unstable Abby, especially when she’s not on her meds, can drink herself into self-mutilation followed by amnesia. She’s been spoiled into sickness and he’s clueless for a cure.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema LA review of Amy Herzog’s “Belleville” – Steppenwolf Theatre in ChicagoIt’s not just that Zack and Abby are intrinsically troubled. They’re cut off from everyone they know in what is promoted as the “city of love” (or, Abby asks, is it just the “city of light”?). Moving to Paris tore out any roots that could ground them in more than each other’s sad silences. One scene ends with a seemingly trivial question about how they’ll spend their “D-A-T-E” (which they’d rather spell than say): “Where are we going?” The audience asks it too—but, happily, of them and not of the play.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema LA review of Amy Herzog’s “Belleville” – Steppenwolf Theatre in ChicagoObserving these failing lovers and representing a very different culture clash is another couple from another world. But they fit in where the Yankees do not. Successfully transplanting themselves from Senegal to France, Afro-French Alouine (Chris Boykin) and his traditional spouse Amina (Alana Arenas) are their uneasy neighbors and landlords. These twentysomethings find nothing to admire in two older “ugly Americans” ignorant of the rest of the world. (Abby disgusts Alouine when she asks him how Muslims celebrate Christmas.) Worse, the ex-pats owe four months’ rent, steal pot from Alouine’s special stash, and literally shed blood at erratic intervals.

The rest is sadder than words. So I’ll stop here. It’s enough to say that each actor is steeped in each role. You wonder how they prepare for each night’s roller-coaster ride or how they decompress afterwards. These are not parts you want to get trapped in.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema LA review of Amy Herzog’s “Belleville” – Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicagophotos by Michael Brosilow

Belleville
Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre
ends on August 25, 2013
for tickets call 312-335-1650 or visit Steppenwolf

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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