Between Abby and Zack, it’s hard to know who to dislike more. Abby is a chronically unhappy daddy’s girl who clings to her far-away family while her husband withers like the neglected house plants in their Paris apartment. Zack is hardly less desperate, so if you’re starting to feel sorry for him, don’t. Before Amy Herzog’s Belleville lurches to its chilling conclusion, you’ll wish you’d never met him, too.
Things are terribly wrong in Herzog’s City of Light because, although these American newlyweds are “living the dream” of being young and in love in Paris, thanks to Zack’s job with Doctors Without Borders, their lives resemble a codependent nightmare more than a romantic, expat idyll. Insecure, immature, needy, dissembling, selfish, they paint a sorry picture of modern American adulthood, especially as juxtaposed with Alioune and Amina, their younger, responsible, hard-working Franco-Senegalese landlords. What exactly Abby and Zack are doing in Paris is unresolved until the play’s climax, but the explanation does not account for Herzog setting her action there.
As in another Herzog play, The Great God Pan, seen earlier this season at Playwrights Horizons, unelucidated references are apparently meant to speak volumes. Here, they lie in the titular setting of the action, Belleville, a gritty immigrant neighborhood squeezed between Paris’ notoriously congested ring road, the Père Lachaise Cemetery, and a shipping canal. For Parisians like myself, the name is practically a cliché for dubious Chinese restaurants, street vendors of all licit and illicit goods, and the cheaper rents that have apparently attracted Abby and Zack to the quartier. According to her biography, Herzog stayed a few weeks here in her young career, and it evidently captured her imagination. Audiences will wonder, however, what meanings the name and the neighborhood are meant to carry, just as they will be left out of some not insignificant developments by the play’s untranslated French dialogue, causing the audience to question, post-performance, on the night I attended, what the final scene meant. If mystery is crucial to the French art of seduction, it can also test theatergoers’ patience.
Abby and Zack’s problems have nothing to do with Alioune and Amina, and our sympathies lie with them, the unwitting victims of the American couple’s volatile and ultimately tragic psychodrama. If Herzog’s anti-heroes are in any French framework, it would have to be a Sartrean huis clos of private existential pain. However, by throwing open the doors of Abby and Zack’s emotional wrestling match to the outside world – Belleville, in this case – the playwright comes close to making the same mistake her characters do, of treating the “local color” as mere elements of the décor that makes these expats’ homesickness and suffering seem so insurmountable to themselves. Case in point: the choice not to super-title the final lines of the play, spoken by Alioune and Amina, is to disregard their impressions of Abby and Zack as unimportant.
Along with such anachronisms as American-style take-out coffee and incessant trans-Atlantic cellphone calls, and despite set designer Julia C. Lee’s suitably Parisian apartment, it’s sometimes hard to imagine that Abby and Zack are in France at all. By the play’s conclusion, it seems that Belleville is perhaps only an ironic play on the name’s literal sense; this “pretty town,” and Abby and Zack’s life in it, are anything but charming.
After exploring repressed memories of sexual abuse in The Great God Pan, Herzog demonstrates again her talent for dredging the vestiges of what passes for family relations in her dysfunctional world, with suspenseful teasings and revelations, even some gore. Director Anne Kauffman’s production aspires to Hitchcockian apprehension but, except for some scenes with knives, doesn’t cut very deep, especially as concerns what makes the loveless newlyweds tick. If Abby and Zack are fairly despicable, neither one of the actors in the duo formed by Maria Dizzia and Greg Keller makes us want to care why they are so. Foils to these, Phillip James Brannon (Alioune) and Pascale Armand (Amina) offer some relief as the dignified and indignant residents of this fictional Belleville.