A psychological thriller as suspenseful as any Hitchcock film
|Steppenwolf Theatre Company presents|
Review by John Olson
What’s more frightening than hearing a noise in the middle of the night? When we’re in bed, undressed and half-asleep, our fear heightened by our vulnerability? Scarier than that is the feeling that one’s mate – the person we trust with all sorts of intimate details of our lives and count on to help protect us from harm – may not be who we think they are. It’s a theme that has been explored with great success in such classic films as Hitchcock’s “Suspicion and Rebecca”, and Cukor’s “Gaslight”. It works again, this time in a contemporary setting, in Belleville.
Amy Herzog’s play, restaged at Steppenwolf by Anne Kauffman, who directed both the play’s 2011 World Premiere at Yale Repertory and this past spring’s off-Broadway production at New York Theatre Workshop, is a psychological thriller in the Hitchcockian tradition. We meet a young American expatriate couple, Zack (Cliff Chamberlain) and Abby (Kate Arrington), living in Paris in the multi-ethnic neighborhood of Belleville. Zack is shown to be a doctor working on an AIDS research project for Doctors without Borders, and Abby is teaching yoga when she can gather enough students. They rent a chicly renovated vintage apartment (courtesy of set designer James Schuette) from the African-French couple Alouine (Chris Boykin) and Amina (Alana Arenas) who live in the building. Zack and Alouine have become buddies, frequently engaging in marijuana-smoking sessions together – and are friendly enough that Alouine has been willing to let Zack and Abby fall four months behind in their rent payments. Initially, Zack and Abby seem a charming enough couple, with little more than the usual growing pains of getting to know each other as mates. Past jealousies come up and there are the usual garden variety communication issues of getting one partner to tell the other what they really want to do for a date. Belleville begins as an only slightly darker and more realistic Barefoot in “le Parc”, but we soon see things are more complicated than that. Abby has trouble managing her alcohol intake, and has recently decided to go off her medications for depression. And Zack seems to have secrets. Just why are they four months behind on the rent, anyway?
That’s about as much as I ought to reveal about plot and characters without there being any spoilers. Herzog keeps us guessing exactly what is going on with Zack and Abby. Is Zack protecting a deeply troubled wife? Maybe so, but why do his explanations never seem to quite add up? Herzog, Kauffman and cast do absolutely masterful work in pulling us into this intrigue. The writing and performances are naturalistic and entirely credible. In true Hitchcockian manner, the thrills come from suspense rather than surprise or shock. We’re on the edge of our seats wondering what is going to happen next. Kauffman brilliantly manages to hold and build suspense even at points when there is practically nothing happening on stage. Indeed, one of the play’s most suspenseful moments occurs when no actors are on stage and we hear only the faintest offstage dialogue (thanks to Richard Woodbury’s clever sound design). In one of the play’s most suspenseful moments, we hear the cries of the landlords’ baby via a baby monitor left behind in the Americans’ apartment. We’re led to fear physical as well as emotional violence, and Herzog effectively keeps surprising us with plot twists. Contributing to the tension is the lighting design by Matt Frey, which not only establishes the time of day for the action, which occurs over some 24 hours or so, but lights the various sections of the apartment (we see bits of the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom as well) to dramatic, suspenseful effect. Woodbury has also contributed a moody original musical score to add mystery to the proceedings.
Kate Arrington, who has played many a troubled and/or daffy young woman at Steppenwolf, gives the performance of a lifetime here. Her Abby ranges from controlled and likable to drunk and suicidal, with stops at angry, terrified and desperate in between. Abby is alternately lucid, drug and alcohol-impaired, in physical and emotional pain, limping, and in physical collapse. Chamberlain has the less showy part, but skillfully reveals the layers beneath his troubled character – not nearly as confident or competent as we’d expect from a young doctor with such an impressive overseas position. Arrington and Chamberlain, dressed as seemingly ordinary American in their late twenties in the costumes by Janice Pytel, carry us into the nightmarish world beneath their surface-level attractiveness, all in the course of this 100-minute intermissionless play. In smaller roles, Boykin and Arenas add to the suspense – with Boykin revealing his loss of patience and trust in his heretofore buddy Zack, and Arenas playing the no-nonsense wife Amina who has long had her suspicions about this couple.
Above all, Belleville is a meditation on the nature of trust, and how terrifying it is to lose that trust in a person to whom you entrusted everything. It’s an entertaining and thought-provoking play which was so effective the performance I attended that it had many of the couples in the audience leaving the theater in awkward silence. A great addition to the genre of psychological thrillers, I highly recommended it to all – except for those couples whose relationships are already on shaky ground.
Belleville continues through August 25th at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map), with performances Tuesdays-Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm and 7:30pm. Tickets are $20-$78, and are available by phone (312-335-1650) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at Steppenwolf.org. (Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes, NO intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
behind the scenes
Anne Kauffman (director), James Schuette (scenic design), Janice Pytel (costume design), Matt Frey (lighting design), Richard Woodbury (sound design), Deb Styer (stage manager), Erica Daniels (casting), Christine D. Freeburg (assistant stage manager), Matt Hawkins (fight choreography), Cecilie O’Reilly (dialect coach), Michael Brosilow (photos).