Life is Beautiful is more than an Academy Award-winning film title; that savored notion is a mantra generations of Americans are nurtured to hope, dream, and believe.
The adventure and escape to the beautiful life – living in Belleville (“beautiful town”), an artsy and ethnically diverse neighborhood in Paris, France – is the idyllic vision of the future and the beautiful reality Abby (Gillian Williams) and Zack (Jacob H. Knoll) aspire. There’s only one problem, make that two – well, at least two – Abby and Zack themselves. And, the fact that life is often ugly.
How do you cope ‘living the dream’ when life is not what you imagined it or believed it to be?
In his fifth season as Studio Theatre’s Artistic Director, David Muse directs the thrilling mood shifts of Amy Herzog‘s Belleville as the kick off to The Studio Theatre’s 2014-2015 season. Belleville comes on the heels of Studio’s acclaimed 2013 run of Herzog’s 4000 Miles – the 2012 Obie Award-winning Best New American Play, and one that earned a Pulitzer Prize for Drama nomination. The subject matter in Belleville has been played out before, but Herzog’s keen sensitivity with human relationships and her strength to capture the pulse and rhythm of modern attitudes and personalities is a force to be recognized.
The voyeuristic intimacy of Belleville is a chilling indictment of a lost generation. Herzog makes a sharp statement with the underlying themes in this production about an entitled generation seeking status, indulgence, and self-actualization. Muse’s taut direction of Herzog’s tightly focused narrative wrings a tether of tension documenting the chain of actions in this eye-averting intense domestic drama. You could feel the entire audience holding its breath until the simmering breaking point.
Muse and the cast execute a searing examination of the surface level attractiveness of “having it all” while sculpting a complex weave of feelings and reshaping the romantic idealism of living abroad. The journey is a deep incision that cuts to the core.
Belleville is also a love story. The penetrating melodrama is an emotional achievement with a core that points straight to the ideals and people we love and says, are we in love with them as they are or as the potential we hope them to be? Having it all … What does the notion of a perfect life even mean? Really? Can you honestly ever “know” another person? Yet for Abby and Zack they seem to be a couple who had it all. Their characters have known each other since college and they call each other “Homey.” But nothing is what it seems.
Scenes from a Marriage
Taking place in their small Parisian apartment, Belleville is centered on a pleasure seeking married couple living with secrets and lies. The overly apologetic, anxiety-filled Abby is 28 years-old and is trying to get off her anxiety meds of five years. She was once an aspiring actress but is now teaching yoga part time. “You have to love to suffer,” she says about acting, “I only like to suffer.” Zack her enigmatic husband has his own vulnerabilities. Zack’s story is that he moved his family to Paris, France for his work as a doctor on a pediatric AIDS research project for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).
With a neutral palette of grays and tans, Set Designer Debra Booth sets the mood for a setting that mirrors the lack of passion and color in the life of the characters. The room is filled with tasteful but inexpensive furnishings but the decor is only warmed by the few pictures on the fireplace mantle and the over-sized wedding photo book that Abby has placed on the table beside the couch. The lighting design of Peter West translates into a film noirish illumination adding dramatic and suspenseful effect, and Sound Designer and Composer Ryan Rymery butters the silences with a pleasing aural Parisian streetscape.
One afternoon when Zack should be at work, Abby comes home and walks in on him when she hears sounds of moans penetrating from the bedroom door. The revelation creates a scene of awkwardness for both of them, but embarrassment is the prevailing sentiment at that moment rather than dealing with the unspoken layers of deceit exposed by the discovery. It’s uncanny. Then there’s Zack’s other outlet of escape – a pleasure he frequently enjoys despite financial difficulties. Abby and Zack are two restless people and their ball of ‘happy’ and the beautiful life is about to burst as the consequences of the deceptions, secrets, and past jealousies reach a point of no return.
With seemingly innate ease, Williams and Knoll portray characters with complex psychological dimensions that are defined and judged by the purity of their actions. Their chemistry as a vulnerable and deteriorating couple shares a visceral energy. The nuances of their emotional turbulence are psychologically astute and deliver a punch in the gut.
Gillian Williams as Abby makes a quick, strong impression as a woman struggling for identity. “I can have all the trappings of a person I hate, and still be a person I like,” she says. Deep down she knows how she desires to be and she has family support, but since her mother’s death she’s been spiraling and is jumpy and on edge. She misses her ‘old self’ and is doing her best to assimilate into her new, uncomfortable life. Williams is particularly adept in demonstrating her character’s growing frustration with the picking, cutting, and the aggravation of her infected toe – a clever visual use of symbolism to parallel the festering relationship.
As Zack’s mask slips, we see that he is a man desperate to survive. He feels pressure to make Abby happy. Zack’s defensiveness becomes increasingly aggressive and controlling as the truth unravels and ‘the beautiful life’ begins to disintegrate.
Yale School of Drama graduate Jacob H. Knoll’s performance of Zack fringes on the nerve of mental and emotional collapse, still Knoll admiringly finesses the character’s delusions of grandeur with a fine line of charm and psychosis. Knoll’s truthful interpretations of his character were never easy or predictable choices which made the authenticity of his portrayal all the more frighteningly real.
There are two other characters in Belleville, Zack and Abby’s neighbors Alioune (Maduka Steady), their Senegalese Landlord, and his French wife Amina (Joy Jones). Maduka Steady creates a real three-dimensional character whose virtues and flaws are enjoyed. Joy Jones’ no-nonsense tone and telling facial expressions are pitch-perfect. These two black characters, forward the plot to a certain degree but their contribution could have been written as a more fully realized storyline. Serving as a model of accountability and honesty, Alioune and Amena are positioned little more than a convenient juxtaposition plot device to exaggerate and counter the deficiencies of Zack and Abby.
The realism of the play and our uneasy awareness of it, is a study of a marriage and domesticity of everyday life in a modern marriage; the themes of loyalty, trust, love and betrayal resonate. The intrigue of Herzog’s storytelling and the eccentricities of Abby and Zack keep the audience guessing.
The slow burn is a contemplative, measured tension until there is an uneasy feeling that violence and menace threaten. The consequences of the deceptions and secrets come to a head and then it’s no turning back. The suspense swells not only in what the characters might do to one another but in what they might do to themselves.
Towards the end there is a dramatic tone shift. Herzog’s abrupt abandonment with the preciseness of the melodrama and the maturing trajectory of the integrity of the characters was a surprise. If I’m completely forthcoming, that sequence was a slight disappointment for me. The emotional landscape of Abby and Zack is level but perhaps the real question is, “How much do we care about either character?”
Nonetheless, like the characters in the play, my emotions were all over the place and the revelations of Belleville left me thinking, exploring, and riveted.
It’s a Wonderful Life … until it’s not.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.
Magic Time: ‘Belleville’ at The Studio Theatre by John Stoltenberg on DCMetroTheaterArts.