Down and Out in Paris: Amy Herzog’s Belleville

A couple’s marriage unravels in Amy Herzog's dark, draining, masterly new play

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From left: Actors Phillip James Brannon, Greg Keller, Maria Dizzia and Pascale Armand at the "Belleville" opening night curtain call at the New York Theatre Workshop in New York City on March 3, 2013 .

Amy Herzog’s play Belleville opens with a scream. Abby, an American expatriate living in Paris, comes back from a yoga class to find her doctor husband, Zack, unexpectedly home from work and passing the time in the bedroom with online porn. She utters a quick shriek when she sees him, but soon composes herself, as they both try to cover up the embarrassment and get back to carrying on with their lives.

Those lives seem a little precarious from the start. They have moved to a working-class neighborhood in Paris so that Zack, who has just graduated medical school, can take a job doing AIDS research. Abby is not adapting well to the new surroundings. She has dropped her French classes because the teacher made fun of her accent. She misses her family terribly, especially now that her sister is about to deliver her first child. Even the yoga class she teaches is little consolation; she’s home early because nobody showed up.

Herzog, a 34-year-old graduate of the Yale School of Drama, is a connoisseur of dislocation, a sympathetic chronicler of the tenuous hold we have on our ordered lives and comforting beliefs. No one currently writing for the theater has a sharper grasp of character, or more sheer storytelling technique. Her plays revolve around secrets being revealed — the illusions about her left-wing family in her semi-autobiographical first play, After the Revolution; the story behind a young man’s sudden appearance at his grandmother’s doorstep after a cross-country bike trip in 4000 Miles; a journalist who discovers that he may, or may not, have been sexually abused as a child in The Great God Pan.  But the revelations emerge naturally, through pitch-perfect dialogue, rather than being imposed by the demands of plot, or force-fed to serve an author’s ideas or agenda. Herzog’s handiwork is all the more impressive for how unobtrusive it is.

The sense of unease in Abby and Zack’s life mounts gradually. Their Senegalese landlord, with whom Zack shares pot, presses him quietly, but with growing urgency, to pay the four months of back rent they owe. Abby has gone off her antidepressant medication, and her obsessiveness about her family — she’s tethered to the cellphone, even when not expecting a call — begins to seem pathological.

Most contemporary plays about troubled marriages — and there are many of them — settle for a mood of wistful tragicomedy: a few jokes here, a few tears there, a sad coming-to-terms at the end. (Latest example: Liz Flahive’s The Madrid, with Edie Falco as a kindergarten teacher who walks out on her husband and daughter.) Herzog doesn’t write jokes, and her vision, though bleak, is neither cynical nor comforting. She is incapable of a cheap effect or easy shortcut. Even the Senegalese couple who manage Zack and Abby’s apartment house, glimpsed only briefly in a couple of scenes, seem to have an offstage life rich enough for a second play.

Belleville made its debut in 2011 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, and director Anne Kauffman had re-created that production for its off-Broadway premiere at the New York Theatre Workshop. She serves the play wonderfully, with a light but firm hand, for a tense, almost breathtaking hour and a half. Greg Keller skillfully suggests, without forcing it, the disturbing undercurrents in Zack’s laid-back amiability, and Maria Dizzia is achingly manic and vulnerable as the neurotic Abby.

Belleville is a dark, draining play — a ticking time bomb with a muffled explosion at the end. To say more would spoil it. I called Herzog’s 4000 Miles the best play of last year, but Belleville is a worthy rival —convincing evidence that, among the new crop of young American playwrights, Herzog is in a class by herself.