Review: Belleville at CustomMade Theatre (***1/2)

by Charles Kruger

Happy (?) couple Abby (Alisha Ehrlich) and Zack (Justin Gilman) share an anecdote with neighbor Alioune (Nick Sweeney). Photo Credit: JayYamada.
Happy (?) couple Abby (Alisha Ehrlich) and Zack (Justin Gilman) share an anecdote with neighbor Alioune (Nick Sweeney). Photo Credit: JayYamada.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

The first thing to be said for “Belleville” at the Custom Made Theatre is that it is riveting for its entire 90 minutes with no intermission.

But “Belleville”, which had its debut at the Yale Repertory, is a puzzling play that has received disparate reviews from reputable sources ranging from “whiny” and “self indulgent” (the Cleveland Plain Dealer) to “extraordinarily fine” (the New York Times).

Leaving the theatre and trying to reflect on what I had seen, my initial reaction (after acknowledging I’d been well-entertained) was to ask, “so what?” — a challenge I often put to a play in order to try and get to the point of the piece. In this case, I found it difficult — I wasn’t sure what the playwright was trying to say. On the other hand, I found myself discussing the play with my companion for hours, even days, afterward.

Americans Abby and Zack are a young married couple living the expatriate life in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. With a bit of ham handed exposition, we learn that Zack is a physician doing research on pediatric AIDS (or is he?), and Abby is an out-of-place actress, reduced to teaching yoga classes. We quickly warm to the couple and are led into a series of intimate scenes which are extraordinarily convincing thanks to playwright Amy Herzog’s subtle and perceptive dialogue and the excellent actors.

Herzog’s grasp of intimate relationships and the feel of young marriage is so on point it seems uncanny, as if we were eavesdropping on our real-life neighbors, not watching a theatrical performance. In fact, “Belleville” may present one of the best on-stage depictions of a marriage since Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”

And as is also true of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” the intimacy of the couple is not just charming and sexy, but carries with it a sense of menace, a danger rising from all that is left unsaid between them. We gradually realize that lies have been told and revelation threatens to rise to the level of violence.

Herzog masterfully builds a mood of suspense and increasing fear that something has to give, while revealing little information that could explain our sense of unease.

The increasing tension builds gradually to an unexpected revelation and a shocking outcome.

It all seems very true to life and and the ending, though unexpected, has the sense of inevitability that is a hallmark of great playwriting.

And yet, after you catch your breath from the evening’s suspense, you may find yourself asking — as I did — what is the point?

If you find yourself unable to come up with an answer, you assuredly will enjoy asking the question and this surprising play may worm its way into your thoughts and stick around there for quite some time.

M. Graham Smith’s direction is rhythmic and subtle, stretching the suspense to the breaking point, as is right for the piece. And the performances by the four-actor ensemble of Alisha Erlich, Justin Gillman, Nick Sweeney, and Nkechi Emerywak are uniformly outstanding.

“Belleville” plays at the CustomMade Theatre Commpany through January 28, 2017. Click here for further information. 

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Rating: ***1/2
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here)
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“Belleville” by Amy Herzog. Produced by Custom Made Theatre Company. Director: M. Graham Smith. Set: Benjamin Shiu. Lighting: Maxx Kurzunski. Costumes: Brooke Jennings. Sound: Ryan Lee Short. 

Cast:

Abby: Alisha Ehrlich. Zach: Justin Gillman. Alioune: Nick Sweeney. Amina: Nkechi Emeruwak.

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