11 October 2014

'Belleville' (Studio Theatre, Washington, DC)

For the third (and penultimate) show in my September Series this year, my mother and I went downtown to the Logan Circle area of Washington to catch a matinee of Amy Herzog’s next-to-latest play, Belleville, at the Studio Theatre on Sunday, 21 September.  Performed without intermission in the Metheny Theatre, a 200-seat thrust space, the hour-and-forty-five-minute Belleville opened under the direction of Studio artistic director David Muse on 3 September and was scheduled to run until 12 October.  

Commissioned by the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, Belleville had its première there in 2011.  (An earlier version, called The Doctor’s Wife—which the playwright discarded—was commissioned by Yale Rep in 2007.)  Two years later, Belleville was staged at the New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village, receiving a nomination in 2013 for the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play; later that year, Chicago’s renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company staged the play.  (All three productions were directed by Anne Kauffman.)  The play was also a finalist for the 2013 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for women playwrights who write in English.  Belleville is Herzog’s third major production as a playwright (and the second at the Studio Theatre, following 4000 Miles in March through May last year).

A graduate of the Yale School of Drama (Master of Fine Arts, 2007), where she studied with playwrights Richard Nelson and John Guare, and Jim Nicola, artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop, Herzog was born in New Jersey 35 years ago but lives in Brooklyn.  (I have a report on ROT of Nelson’s That Hopey Changey Thing, also at the Studio Theatre, posted on 15 December 2013.)  She turned to playwriting after having trained as an actor as a Yale undergrad, which may have influenced her writing.  In Belleville, the character of Abby says, “To be an actor you have to love to suffer, and I only like to suffer”; this may reveal something of why Herzog made the switch to writing.  She began composing plays after she graduated from Yale College (Class of ’00), starting with the 10-minute script Granted (2001).  Never having taken any writing courses before, Herzog started taking a playwriting class at Columbia University later that same year.  “I always thought of myself as a writer,” she’s said, “but not because I was actually writing.”  While at Columbia, the budding dramatist wrote In Translation (which she calls “this horrible play that I hope no one ever sees”) that gained her entrance into Yale Drama in 2003.  Her previous major works are After the Revolution, produced in 2010 by the Williamstown Theater Festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts, in 2010, and 4000 Miles, a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, was débuted by Lincoln Center Theater at The Duke on 42nd Street in New York City in 2011.  The dramatist’s fourth script, The Great God Pan, premièred at New York’s Playwrights Horizons in 2012.  Herzog has taught playwriting at Bryn Mawr and Yale. 

In her first two professional plays, Herzog mined her family history for drama, exploring secrets uncovered and surprises long buried in family lore.  She explains: “I’m interested in those moments of examination that, by necessity, come later.  I really don’t know anyone who is present and thoughtful going through their whole lives, and the things that we inherit from our families are the things that we really question.”   Of Herzog’s dramaturgy, review-writer and journalist Alexis Soloski wrote in American Theatre: “Her plays assiduously balance autobiography and fiction; personal interests and political ones; concealment and exposure.”  In Belleville, however, the playwright follows a parallel tack, but examines the misunderstandings and discoveries of a couple unrelated to her.  Studio dramaturg Lauren Halvorsen advises that “Herzog remains captured by stories of shifting understandings in our closest relationships, and the intersection of intimacy and deception.”  In his review of the NYTW début of Belleville, Time theater reviewer Richard Zoglin said: “Herzog . . . 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.”  He added of her treatment of the story of a marriage: “Herzog doesn’t write jokes, and her vision, though bleak, is neither cynical nor comforting.” 

Zack (Jacob H Knoll) and Abby (Gillian Williams), a young American couple—they’re both 28—are living the ex-pat life in the multiethnic, artsy neighborhood of Belleville in the City of Love—or is it the City of Light?; Abby isn’t sure which.  (Belleville, which means “beautiful town” in French, is a little like SoHo or Chelsea in Manhattan or some neighborhoods in Brooklyn like Bushwick.  Perhaps a more apt comparison is to the Logan Circle neighborhood in Washington, the home of the Studio Theatre.)  She’s teaching yoga and he’s working for Doctors Without Borders to develop a cure for pediatric AIDS.  What could be more romantic or more fun?  But there are secrets just below the surface and we can see almost immediately that this idyll isn’t quite what it ought to be.  It starts with an awkward moment when Abby returns early from her yoga class—no one showed up—and after dropping her shopping bags and yoga mat and shedding her jacket and such, enters the bedroom (from which we hear some suspicious moans) and utters a scream.  (Yes, we all know what Herzog wants us to think’s going on!)  Zack’s home from work when he’s not supposed to be and Abby catches him indulging in a little online porn and self-gratification.  As the couple begins the delicate dance of skirting the truth—not just about the afternoon surprise, but their whole life together, starting from when Abby proposed to Zack in college—we learn lots of secrets, not all of which are innocent or harmless.  Also embroiled, however reluctantly, in the deceptions and their repercussions are Zack and Abby’s landlord, Alioune (Maduka Steady), a Senegalese-born Parisian, and his French-born wife, Amina (Joy Jones).  

The playwright teases out the hidden truths in small increments like a hermetically-sealed thriller—in fact, some of them are never revealed.  According to dramaturg Halvorsen, Herzog watched suspense movies like Suspicion (1941, directed by Alfred Hitchcock) and Gaslight (1944, George Cukor) as research to see “exactly how many times does something get mentioned, and when is too much.”  I won’t reveal the details—the play only runs an hour-and-three-quarters; if I told you what happens, there’d be nothing left to discover!—but suffice it to say that the young lovers are co-dependents and co-enablers.  (The press packet given to publishing reviewers apparently contained a note admonishing journalists not to disclose any of the reveals in Belleville.)  It doesn’t end well, revealing, according to the theater’s promo, “the terrifying, profound unknowability of our closest relationships” (the theme, also, of Herzog’s family-history plays as well).

I’d never seen one of Herzog’s plays before Belleville, so I’ll backpedal a bit.  My initial response was that she wasn’t going to be a favorite, a writer whose work I’d always make an effort to see.  The work on the production at the Studio was as good as that theater’s high standards ever are, but I was not overwhelmed with the play.  (I’ll expand on this shortly.)  But since I haven’t seen her family-based plays, which sound more intriguing because they’re founded on characters, facts, and real events to which the playwright has a visceral connection, I won’t make that a declaration.  Oddly, some of my main objections are the same as those I raised regarding Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love which I saw at Bethesda, Maryland’s, Round House Theatre a few days before Belleville (see my report posted on 6 October).  (I’ll get to this, too, though you can perhaps suss some of it out from what I’ve said earlier.)

Now, as I said, the acting, directing, and production of Studio’s Belleville were marvelous; I can’t complain about any of these aspects of what I saw.  Director Muse handled Herzog’s contrivances with credibility and directness and in so far as the performances are concerned didn’t let any of the seams rip apart.  The actors, especially Williams and Knoll as the young couple, committed to what they were doing and saying (and not saying) as fully as I believe any actors could.  Steady and Jones as the African apartment managers were equally persuasive.  (Their dialect coach, by the way, was Gary Logan—and I was convinced that Alioune was an immigrant from Dakar and Amina was born in Paris.  I assume both actors have had some French because much of their dialogue is in that language, including almost all of the final scene.  Readers of ROT may know that I finished high school in Geneva and was pretty fluent in French—including acquiring a near-native accent.)  Steady’s portrayal of a friend who wants to be loyal and supportive but has broader obligations and Jones’s more leery partner (“We don’t know you,” she reminds Zack several times) were both touching and understandable, making them the two characters that rang the truest and most believable with respect to reality.

I’ve equivocated  concerning Williams’s Abby and Knoll’s Zack, not because of the actors’ work but because even the best acting would have left holes in the characterizations that Herzog put there.  First, in reference to the problem parallel to that in Fool for Love to which I alluded, Herzog has contrived a slew of secrets for Abby and Zack to conceal which they a) can’t reveal until the play’s dramatic denouement and b) have to hint about throughout the rest of the play.  It’s entirely artificial.  In order to justify that a married couple, two people who were purportedly in love with one another as far back as college, would keep all these secrets, some of them momentous, from one another, Herzog has to add more secrets.  So she gives both Abby and Zack psychological issues that essentially only begin to surface at the point the play opens.  The hint-dropping is also artificial because it’s for our benefit, not each other’s.  So, the actors have to contend with the artificiality of keeping secrets that real people, especially (I’d hope) married people, wouldn’t really keep—or, perhaps be able to keep for very long—and at the same time leave obscure little clues around for an audience to glom onto so we remain interested in what’s up.  (I assume that this can work differently in the plays that are based on real family secrets that are uncovered decades later.  Somehow the dynamics of that seem different to me—but, then, I’m only speculating.)  

This is all a little hard to write about without revealing any of the hidden facts on which the play’s conclusion (or, really, non-conclusion) depends because I can’t give examples of how this all worked for me.  And I also acknowledge that this kind of playwriting (and screenwriting, too) is a personal bugaboo for me—I don’t like it and it drives me up a wall, but others (obviously) don’t share my point of view.  I admit that.  Doesn’t change anything, though!  I feel what I feel.  It’s why I’ve never been a fan of Pinter or Shepard, and now I have my doubts about Herzog as well.  (Okay, I’m not consistent: I like Hitchcock and Stanley Donen—Charade, one of my all-time favorite movies, and Arabesque.  Maybe it’s just not the same at the movies.  Even Herzog observed, “It’s different onstage than in film,” though she was talking about a slightly different aspect of the suspense thriller.  Of course, Belleville isn’t actually a thriller, despite the writer’s research.)

The hidden psychology is also a problem, but of a slightly dissimilar variety.  It doesn’t ring entirely true.  First of all, both Abby and Zack treat some issues as much more impactful than they probably would be outside of fiction.  In other words, they overreact to stimuli.  Yes, Herzog has set up some really big problems, but we don’t learn of them for quite a while, so the smaller matters have to loom large or the burgeoning drama won’t germinate.  Of course, we can write off this overreaction to the characters’ mental problems—which might work on paper, but dramatically, it’s circular.  It also means that what we’re watching isn’t really a play about a failing marriage built on lies and deceptions, but a kind of latter-day David and Lisa—two crazy people feeding off one another.  I don’t believe that’s what Herzog wants to write about.  Furthermore, the mental issues Herzog seems to have decreed for her main characters don’t line up with reality, either. 

My feeling about this was confirmed with clinical expertise by one of my companions at the performance.  The subscription partner of the friend of my mother’s who drove us downtown that afternoon had been a psychiatric social worker, and she explained why I may have felt there was something wrong with Abby’s and Zack’s behaviors.  Abby, according to my informant, is a psychotic, which is a serious psychological state that can turn perilous if the patient stops taking meds—which Abby has done before the play starts.  Zack, however, apparently shows symptoms of neurosis, a far less dangerous condition (which Woody Allen, for one, has made a career of as a source of comedy), yet it’s Zack who takes the most drastic actions and harbors the most momentous secret.  According to my source, his behavior is out of line with his illness, which throws the whole play out of whack.  

I confess to feeling a little defensive about this criticism because back on 19 May 2012, I posted an article called “It’s Not Real – It’s Art” in which I took a couple of theatergoers to task for complaining about two plays whose factual aspects didn’t measure up to their experiences in the respective fields.  Here I seem to be doing the same thing for which I lambasted two other critical spectators—so why shouldn’t sauce for the goose be sauce for the gander?  Maybe it was because I felt something wasn’t right before I knew there was a factual basis for my unease.  Or that the problem is fundamental to Herzog’s dramatic point, whereas the issues raised by the other detractors weren’t central to those dramas.  Or, maybe more significant theatrically, that Belleville didn’t satisfy me thematically or dramatically so what was to me inconsequential— dramatic license, say—in the other plays (both of which I’d seen and liked tremendously) was more significant and damaging in Herzog’s dramaturgy.  Shakespeare made lots of factual errors in his plays, some deliberate for poetic and dramatic purposes and some predicated on the accepted knowledge of the Elizabethan era; Ibsen, too, included erroneous facts in his scripts based on inaccurate science of the 19th century.  Few admirers of their plays, however, raise the issue because they are such magnificent dramas that the errors are piddling and unworthy of concern.  I guess I can’t give Herzog a pass on that rationale—at least not for Belleville.  

The upshot of this is that no director and actors can hope to overcome such fundamental writing deficiencies.  The cast can act up a storm and still come up short because the playwright has supplied them with faulty foundations.  A house built on sand will be uninhabitable; characters built the same way will be unsustainable.  

Let me reiterate, however, that the Studio’s creative team put together a first-class production irrespective of the drama’s ultimate success.  In addition to the acting and directing, the Belleville apartment designed by Debra Booth was both funky and charming, evoking the mythical vision of ex-pat Paris the way Herzog saw it, “the Paris of the American imagination.”  (I have some idea what that’s like: my very first trip to Europe, when I was about to turn 16, was to Paris.  It was freezing cold that December—the same time of year as Herzog’s setting—but everything about the city, from our hotel room near the Étoile to the little bistro around the corner where we ate the first night to the café where I celebrated my birthday, was magical, exotic, and wonderful.  I later found other places more to my liking—I spent my next birthday in London which became my favorite city in the world from then on—but when I returned to my U.S. school after that vacation, one teacher stopped me and said there was something different about me.  She asked where I’d been for the school break and when I told her, she smiled knowingly and said, “That’s what it is.”  The myth of Paris can do that, whether you’re a 16-year-old like me or a 20-something like Herzog.)  Booth’s apartment, with its skylights, the windows in the bathroom door, and the French windows (what else?) out to the street below, but with perfectly ordinary furnishings and precious little decoration, all warmed by Peter West’s atmospheric lighting, caught that for me.  Alex Jaeger’s costumes were less evocative, but appropriate for the displaced American twenty-somethings and their resident apartment managers.

Most published critics, both on paper and on line, seem to have agreed with me.  All four actors are superb,” reported Rebecca J. Ritzel in Washington City Paper, then continued, “What’s problematic about the play isn’t the plot itself, but Zack and Abby’s backstory.”  In the beginning, Ritzel said, “we’ve been willing to believe how these two people’s lives arrived at their present state, and then suddenly, the exposition doesn’t make sense—from little things like dates not adding up, to some rather preposterous final lies.”  (Sounds like shorthand for what I’ve said, doesn’t it?)  In the Washington Post, Peter Marks opened by lamenting, “‘Belleville’ is the sort of ­atmospheric thriller that comes to a delicate boil under a slender flame and leaves you, after all is ominously said and done, a bit creeped out but less than sufficiently gripped.”  Marks added, “As a genre piece, ‘Belleville’ remains a work of some interest, even if it’s not among this playwright’s best.”  He complained that the play fails because “the unraveling of Zack and Abby’s bond falls back on the conventions of suspense, in an effort to intensify the stakes” and of the way it “veers uneasily from subtle to cheap theatrics.”  The resolution is “too facile,” said the Post writer, and “Herzog resorts to a rather pat formula to explain the escalating tensions.”  In the end, Marks declared, “[Y]ou’re left with the suspicion that on this occasion, this talented playwright could have found a way to affect you more deeply.”  

On MD Theatre Guide, Roger Catlin offered the opinion that the sudio’s Belleville was a “strong production” but warns audiences that though it’s “a play they might think is nuanced consideration about how much we know about our closest relationships, . . . it is eventually a straight up thriller.”  Riley Croghan succinctly summed up my own feelings on dcist: “David Muse’s direction strives to bring the uncomfortable story of a marriage falling apart with unflinching (but often flinch-inducing) realism but doesn’t fully overcome Herzog’s script, written with characters and circumstances that don’t ring quite true.”  Nonetheless, Croghan concluded that Belleville is “a suspenseful and wild emotional ride, and one well worth seeing.”  

DC Theatre Scene’s Tim Treanor declared, “In Belleville, Herzog’s characters face moron dilemmas, as in how to survive in the face of idiotic decisions,” and even though “Studio Theatre plays the hell out of it . . ., there’s no there there.”  Treanor characterizes the climactic act as “so staggeringly stupid that we lose respect not only for the character who committed the act but to the character’s partner” and “we are left with no greater understanding, no insight.”  The Studio presentation, however, was “done beautifully,” the DCTS reviewer wrote, praising even Herzog’s dialogue as “absolutely authentic,” but finally determined that “the production would be a joy to behold except that most of it is about something which isn’t all that interesting and the rest is about somebody who isn’t all that bright.”  Conversely, “The Studio Theatre’s riveting production of Belleville gives us Amy Herzog’s writing at its electrifying best,” announced John Stoltenberg, “a full-on fan and follower” of Herzog, on DC Metro Theater Arts.  Herzog not only “tackles the psychological suspense-and-thriller genre,” asserted Stoltenberg, but “she has made it her own.”  The Studio production is advanced, in the view of the DCMTA review-writer, by Muse’s “razor-sharp” direction and “the eloquent precision of the performances.” 

On Talkin’ Broadway Regional News & Reviews, Susan Berlin wrote that Herzog “gives . . . a fresh jolt” to the “eternal” question of “How well can any two people really know each other?”  The Studio production, “with a solid four-member cast,” Berlin asserted, was “smoothly directed” by Muse, who “starts naturalistically and moves by infinitesimal steps into darker territory.”  There’s no shortage of drama with Studio Theatre’s season opener Belleville,” stated Broadway World: Washington, DC’s Benjamin Tomchik; it “may be a challenging play to sit through, but that doesn’t stop Studio Theatre from staging an exceptionally solid production.  Herzog’s play is “a powerful piece with characters that are terrifyingly real,” wrote Tomchik.  “What’s frustrating,” the BWW reviewer continued, “is that Herzog declines to answer one final question—why did we go on this journey.”  Tomchik asked, “What, if anything, is the ultimate lesson to be taken from their experience?” and then offered, “Despite a well-crafted and well-acted production . . ., Belleville remains a frustrating work” because we ultimately “question the rationale for why we’re being brought in to watch.” 

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