Maria Dizzia and Greg Keller elevate Amy Herzog's thin thriller into an unnerving portrait of loneliness and contagious anxiety in Paris.
Belleville, now at New York Theatre Workshop, begins with all the trimmings of a standard-issue millennial relationship drama. An apartment door opens, a failed-actress-turned-yogi stumbles in with fresh produce, an ironic baby onesie for a pregnant sister appears. There's porn, weed, nudity. Paris subs in for Brooklyn, though you'd never know it from the bohemian attic flat that is home to Abby and Zach, the American couple the play follows. But as with much of writer Amy Herzog's work, these familiar details are a manipulation, devices which disarm viewers enough to allow Belleville's river of anxiety to flow from stage to audience by show's end.
Now ten years into their relationship, yoga-instructor Abby (Maria Dizzia) and med-school grad Zach (Greg Keller) are just beginning to encounter the isolation of long-term monogamy. Zach, who theoretically pursued pediatric AIDS research abroad to make his depressed wife happy in Paris, is dumbstruck by how ineffective grand gestures are at healing wounds. Abby, underemployed and fixated on the memory of her mother's death, is unable to keep a near-compulsive obsession with family back home from freezing the intimacy out of her marriage. Both approach their challenges—like what to do when you're certain the person you know best is lying—the way teenagers do, tossing resentment, fear, and curiosity in the air and seeing which one lands hardest.
To complicate matters, Abby's titrating off antidepressants while Zach's sneaking around getting stoned, sometimes with the landlord, Alioune (Phillip James Brannon, whose warmth lights up his scenes), to whom he secretly owes a considerable amount of money. A small business owner already happily married with children at age 25 (a level of accomplishment which baffles 28-year-old Abby), Alioune is the closest thing to a flesh-and-blood adult in Zach and Abby's life together, and his detachment from the pair over the debt sends the couple into a rising tide without a boat. It isn't long before both begin pushing the other under in an attempt not to drown.
Post-exposition, Belleville is a series of increasingly uncomfortable moments that intensify whenever Zach or Abby are alone in their shared space—one scene involving Abby and an attempt at self-surgery elicits more shrieks and shielded eyes from the audience than any Saw film could. At one point soon thereafter an audible complaint from a ticketholder about pacing was made, and while some will agree with that critique, director Anne Kauffman has handled her timing with careful accuracy. Real people put tremendous time and thought into conjuring the wrong thing to say, and Abby and Nick's anguished, often silent, reconsiderations of whether to open a door or say something are as active as any simulated sex scene. (There's one of those, too, vulnerably staged.) Their pauses are less Pinter, and more people behaving as people do.
Which is not to say Belleville doesn't drag. Waiting for the coin to drop on Nick's secret goes from thrilling to tedious, and the revelation—as kinetic as the wet, manic result is to watch—does not sting enough to make one forget the wait. Had even a small percentage of build-up been reallocated to fleshing out the aftermath, the play would be stronger as a whole.
When looked at as a star vehicle for two extraordinary actors, Belleville is near perfect—it's easy to see why Dizzia and Keller followed the production from Yale Rep, where it debuted in 2011. Reconnecting with the Tony-nominated hysterics seen in her Victorian housewife from In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, Dizzia does what very few of her contemporaries can: make a stagnant, anxiety-ridden mess of a girl someone you care for. "I can have all the trappings of a person I hate and still be a person I like, right?" Abby asks at one point. In this case, yes.
Dizzia puts her body and neuroses on full display with great bravery and to great effect, but the glimpses she gives of the sexier, simpler girl who won her husband's devotion are the most skillfully executed—there is no questioning why, beyond duty, this boy would risk losing everything to make her happy. You cheer for Abby, despite knowing no woman so broken can possibly be healed in 90 minutes without intermission.
The always believable Keller, hindered slightly by Greg's vague evasiveness here, is helped in part by his obvious chemistry with Dizzia. With this off-Broadway mounting the pair play husband and wife for the third time in a major production, and their relationship couldn't be more real. (They also appeared in Daniel Goldfarb's Cradle and All.) Watching Keller try to manage Greg's panic when he fears the worst has happened to Abby is gut-wrenching, as is following his transformation from someone you could know to someone you could never make excuses for.
As a singular work, the play is at best an unnerving, but unsatisfying, drama that thankfully offers savvier meditations on being young and isolated than your average millennial piece does. But in the context of Herzog's growing body of work, it may be more significant. Her breakout play 4000 Miles, lauded by audiences ranging from undergrad burnouts to conservative boomers, provided the kind of insights into the oft-clichéd minds of twentysomethings that can only be verbalized by someone very old, very wise, or very gifted. Her follow-up, the equally acclaimed The Great God Pan, tracked young men transitioning out of their mid-twenties while reliving distorted childhood memories. Should the Belleville portrait of near-30 lovers in isolation turn out to be a step toward work involving older characters—and people less like the ones in Herzog's own orbit—it will be an important bridge from her observations on youth to her observations on life, especially if all are connected thematically by the same thread of self-doubt so prevalent in Herzog's work thus far.
Without that evolution, however, Belleville will be remembered as a play that, like its flimsily resolved characters, takes the easy way out.