“Belleville” – A surprising turn of events

Crimson Square Theatre Company, the in-residence performing arm of the tiny little Beverly Hills Playhouse, is presenting a worthy production of Amy Herzog’s “Belleville.” The play is an unsettling account of a young marriage with the minor rifts and tears so common to couples still trying to get to know one another. Zack and Abby, Abby and Zack back and forth in the light and dark.

For whatever reason, never fully understood by either, they live in Belleville, a diverse, slightly seedy but affordable area of Paris with low rents that lies along the fault lines of the 20th and 19th arrondissements, with a spill over into the gentrifying 10th and 11th districts. A melting pot, to be sure, with a vibrant art scene, it was the birthplace of Edith Piaf. Today it is dominated by North and Sub-Saharan Africans. Here, a large Muslim population lives uneasily with Jewish immigrants.

Returning home early when the yoga class she was teaching was canceled, Abby hears mysterious noises in the bedroom. Carefully, quietly opening the door, she’s taken aback by the sight of Zack engaging in some vivid self-indulgence. Certainly her discovery was untoward but her reaction is heightened by unanswered questions. Why isn’t he at work? Why is he…? What doesn’t she know? And that is the salient question. What doesn’t she know?

As far as she’s concerned, they moved to Paris so he could take a prestigious job involving AIDS research. They even left before his med school graduation in Baltimore so he could do so. She’s proud of him but is like a fish out of water. She gave up on her French lessons because her teacher made fun of her accent (haven’t we all been there), her yoga classes are haphazard, and she misses her family. She’s unraveling because her sister is having a baby and she can’t be there because Zack screwed up their visas. If they leave, they can’t come back.

Zack, totally repentant for his “misdemeanor,” understands her loneliness but feels it’s exacerbated because she’s gone off her meds. After five years, she’s still mourning the death of her mother and has no recognizable grasp on the life she’s living, or at least the one she’s supposed to be living.

As Abby goes off to take a nice, warm, soothing bath, one of several a day she indulges in, their landlord Alioune has something important to discuss. Zack is four months behind on the rent and unless he receives what is due in the next two days, he will be forced to evict them. Not to worry, Zack assures him while he offers him some grass to calm their nerves. A drink is out of the question because Alioune is Muslim, although his wife Amina would argue that marijuana is also off the books. Zack is a schmoozer as he glides across the room and tells anecdotes to distract Alioune. But the time for distraction is over. Sure, they’re friends, but Alioune’s uncle has discovered that he’s allowed Zack too much leeway and he’s about to lose his position. Sure, sure, sure, Zack assures him. They’re in Paris because Abby told him it was her lifelong dream to go to Paris and he doesn’t want anything to interfere. I’ll have it for you. In other words the check is in the mail.

Warily, Alioune leaves as we become witness to the aforementioned rifts and tears in Zack and Abby’s relationship. Abby, immensely annoying with her neediness is cosseted by Zack and his answers for everything. But are they listening to each other and what are they hearing? As pressure mounts on the two of them, all based on wishes, interpretations, misunderstandings, and out and out lies, a downward spiral soaked in danger begins, careening down a greased hill.

The two leads are very good. Heidi Ramee as Abby is a whirling dervish of contradictions and neediness, bending her incredibly flexible body into positions that would rival the Cirque du Soleil and enhance her loopiness, underpinning her sadness with necessary humor. She maneuvers the juxtaposition with Zack masterfully.

Tomas Pais as Zack is the very embodiment of that best friend you make at a bar. All friendly banter accompanied by personal anecdotes that disarm, it takes a while to recognize that he’s all talk and no action. His life unravels quickly when forced to confront the web of lies on which his persona is based. Charming and chilling, Pais’s Zack is both.

Andrew Tyree as Alioune is fine but there is little depth to his character and certainly no development. This may be a combination of an underdeveloped part and direction that did not help him find nuances that might have been more important to the action between Zack and Abby. The same can be said of Olabisi Kobabel as Alioune’s wife Amina. Amina is skeptical and not taken in by Zack or Abby. Rarely on stage, and hardly fundamental to the action, she plays her role as perpetually angry. That is not to say that she shouldn’t be angry, because she should. Zack is endangering her husband’s livelihood, even if he can’t see it, and she has children to raise. Unfortunately Kobabel plays her anger at top volume, allowing no gradation. There is little seething, no simmering, just shouting. Herzog’s focus was on Zack and Amy and she used Alioune and Amina as plot movers and not as necessary character forces.

Staged in six scenes, it is Derrick McDaniel’s lighting design that is fundamental to the passage of time over the hours and days in play. Overall, Benjamin Burt’s direction keeps things moving and the way he subtly changes the focus from Abby to Zack and back again is what makes Herzog’s excellent play come alive.

This is a production worthy of support and it’s local. Go see it.

Now playing at the Beverly Hills Playhouse – 254 South Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills 90211

Running October 28-November 20. Performances Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 7:00 pm. Tickets are $35. Running time is 90 minutes with a short intermission.

For information and tickets: www.crimsonsquare.org or call 323-657-5992.