Christmas is always a good time to go crazy, even for a young expat couple living the sweet life in Paris. The unnerving play “Belleville,” from white-hot legit scribe Amy Herzog, is a daring repudiation of all those romantic fabrications about the liberating experience of living abroad. Married Americans Abby and Zack could pass for the perfect couple in this slow-burning psychological study, right up to the moment when their marriage starts to crack — and possibly their minds along with it.
Anne Kauffman directs this rather mysterious play with perfect control over its subtle and quite alarming mood shifts. Abby and Zack, who are played for serious stakes by Maria Dizzia and Greg Keller, seem a bit neurotic when we first meet them. But hey, they could just be exhausted from living the dream of young and educated Americans abroad.
Set designer Julia C. Lee has installed them in a generically boho flat in the studiously hip Parisian quarter of Belleville. (“There’s a lot of life here,” Abby observes of their ethnically diverse neighborhood.) That translates into cheap, mismatched furniture, exposed pipe radiators, and a beaded curtain separating kitchen from living room.
At 28, Abby and Zach seem too old for the hippie persona. She’s obviously wasting time as a yoga instructor, and she knows it. “I’m such a downer,” she tells Alioune, the Senegalese landlord (Phillip James Brannon), who occasionally drops by with his wife (Pascale Armand) to visit. “I just don’t have enough to do.”
But Zack is a doctor doing important research to save babies from contracting the AIDS virus. Or so Abby thinks, until she catches him alone, watching porn in the middle of the day.
Once Herzog starts drawing the curtains back on this cozy love nest, more disturbing revelations come thick and fast. Abby is more than bored; she’s severely depressed and off her meds. In addition to his spotty professional history, Zack is a serious pot-head, to the point of breaking into his landlord’s flat looking for weed. And then there’s the little matter of the rent.
Under Kauffman’s helming, both Dizzia (“In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play”) and Keller do such natural and understated work that it takes a while to comprehend the extent of their characters’ alienation — from their country, their families, their neighbors and, most of all, from each other. But by the time one of them warns the other not to play with knives while drunk, it’s pretty clear that Herzog has carried off something of a coup in the theatrical annals of abnormal psychology.