Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through Aug. 25
By ANNE SPISELMAN
The American couple at the center of Amy Herzog’s “Belleville” is seriously screwed up, but nothing in the play or Steppenwolf Theatre’s production, ably directed by Anne Kauffman and expertly acted, made me care about these characters.
Herzog raises some provocative questions about trust and relationships, particularly: How can we ever really know another person, even if we’re living with them? And she does an interesting, if slightly schematic, job of contrasting the immaturity of twenty-something expats, Abby and Zack, with the maturity of their slightly younger landlords, Senegalese immigrant Alouine and his French-born wife, Amina. But most of the 105-minute evening is devoted to the downward spiral of Abby and Zack as the depth of their dysfunction unfolds.
Because Herzog shapes the story as a psychological thriller, I’ll try to avoid spoilers. The basic set up is that recently married Zack (Cliff Chamberlain) and Abby (Kate Arrington) have come to Paris because Zack got a job doing medical research on children with AIDS for Medicine Sans Frontiers. They’re living in the multi-ethnic Belleville neighborhood in an attic apartment — James Schuette’s fine set features French doors and balconies overlooking rooftops — in a building managed by Alouine (Chris Boykin) and Amina (Alana Arenas), who live downstairs with their two young children.
The first clue that something is amiss comes when Abby returns early from Christmas shopping to find that Zack, rather than being at work, is in the next room watching computer porn and masturbating. This is one of the bits Herzog throws in for shock effect — another is a gross-out moment involving an infected toenail and a big knife — but other than introducing the possibility that Zack is keeping secrets from Abby, who doesn’t know exactly how to react, it doesn’t really go anywhere.
That’s because Alouine pops in from downstairs. While Zack is showering, Abby offers her landlord cookies (but no beverage, one of the many unrealistic details that bothered me), and the discussion of their age and point-in-life differences takes place, the upshot being that Abby enjoys a relatively carefree existence while Alouine has lots of adult responsibilities. The real reason for the visit emerges in a private discussion as he and Zack smoke some marijuana the latter offers: Alouine wants the rent Zack hasn’t paid in four months, something else he hasn’t told Abby about.
Just as we’re thinking that Zack is a total jerk, we learn that Abby has lots of baggage, too. Besides rushing the wedding so it could take place before her ailing mother died, she’s still grieving and spends loads of time on the phone to her dad back in the U.S. — much to Zack’s irritation. One big topic of their conversations is the impending birth of her sister’s baby, and Abby’s obsession with a minute-by-minute account implies that she still thinks of herself as a child in that family rather than a grown-up making her own. She’s also gone off her antidepressants, and Zack sees her behavior as increasingly erratic. Whether he’s right or imagining things is one of the sources of tension, but as an incessant pot-smoker who’s always on edge, he’s less than ideally equipped to handle her issues or his own.
A drunken night on the town, a misguided break-in and an attempted suicide are among the complications as Abby and Zack back themselves into a corner with a series of bad decisions, and Alouine and the supremely no-nonsense Amina are left to clean up the mess. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to recognize people we know in the Americans, or if their arrested development is a general political indictment, but for me, their messed-up behavior started falling into a repetitive pattern that became tiresomely predictable.
Their motivations also aren’t very believable. Zack claims he moved to Paris because he thought that’s what Abby wanted, but it’s unclear why he’s so intent on keeping her there — and not letting her talk to her father — over her objections. The excuse he gives for not making a holiday trip to the U.S. — that there’s something wrong with their visas, so they won’t be able to return to France — makes little sense, because Americans don’t need visas to travel back and forth to France. And how can Abby be so oblivious that she doesn’t know the rent hasn’t been paid in four months? And why did Alouine, who apparently has to answer to his uncle, let the rent go unpaid for so long, when Amina is so strict about following the rules?
If these and the other practical questions swirling around in my head suggest that “Belleville” didn’t speak to me on an emotional level, well, that’s correct. I thought the acting was topnotch, as was the design — Matt Frey’s lighting somehow conjured up Paris — but didn’t really see the point of the whole endeavor.