“Just one false move, babe, and suddenly everything’s ruined.”
-Fountains of Wayne
BELLEVILLE by Amy Herzog at Third Rail Rep
What happens when everyone else melts away and it’s you and your partner left alone? Perhaps you’re eating a meal at home, or maybe you’re driving somewhere. Things are going along ok, and then out of nowhere there’s a lapse of attention, one ill-chosen word or glance, and suddenly you realize you don’t know this other person at all. There’s not much company to share this revelation with: after all, it’s just the two of you now.
Such a moment kicks off Amy Herzog’s dark, sharply uncomfortable play BELLEVILLE, which opened last night at Third Rail in a somewhat mixed production. In Herzog’s story, American Abby (Rebecca Lingafelter) has just returned to her Paris apartment mid day. She discovers her husband Zack (Isaac Lamb) in their bedroom watching porn. Zach’s supposed to be at work.
From one unexpected and unrecoverable discovery, we watch over an intermissionless 100 minutes as this young expat couple’s marriage moves from rocky to the stuff of horror films.
Abby and Zack moved to Paris for Zack’s job at Doctors Without Borders. Abby has not yet detached from her own original family back in the US completely and still talks to her father daily for support. Stateside, her sister is just about to have a baby, and Abby wanted to be there but something went wrong with their visas (thanks to Zack). The young American woman doesn’t speak much French – she stopped going to her lessons because the teacher made fun of her. Zack has a college kid’s weed habit and has found a stoner buddy in his North African landlord. Though they are both in Paris physically, Abby and Zack aren’t very engaged with the surroundings. As we’ll learn, they’re too caught up in their own problems to have much chance of engaging with a foreign culture.
Herzog is a tough and exacting writer, and she finds a lot of beats that ring true in this couple’s deformed relationship. Abby, not quite willing to believe her marriage may be in trouble, flips in an instant from fighting to considering the plan for the evening: where are they going for date night? Faced with his cratering life, Zack focuses on (what else) finding the next joint to smoke.
This version of young Americans foundering abroad is significantly hampered by casting two actors who are quite a bit older than the 20-somethings of the script. Lingafelter must be at least a decade older than the 28 Abby is supposed to be, and though she does some strong acting to portray the younger woman, there’s often confusion here as we watch what sounds like a younger person’s drama but looks like a middle-aged one.
The show starts off playing up the comedy of the initial surprise at home, which feels awkward and doesn’t set the right tone. At any minute you can picture the two leads breaking decisively into the humor they are known for (particularly Lamb), but that’s not this play. Going genuinely dark seems to be a harder task for the two.
It’s good to see Herzog searching for new subjects, even if the world she creates isn’t a whole lot of fun for the audience to be around. She’s after a larger point here about America and the world.