There are many doors in Second Thought Theatre’s production of Belleville, but no real means of escape. Sarah Brown’s set — realistic down to the Ikea furniture in the main playing space, but eerily wallpapered with mismatched, vintage doors at the edges — creates the perfect atmosphere for the play’s central couple: They could possibly escape their tragedy, if only they knew which direction to go.
The direction they previously chose took them to France, where a dream job researching pediatric AIDS landed Zack and his wife, Abby, in the bohemian neighborhood of Belleville. The 28-year-olds have been together since college and weathered some trying times. The death of Abby’s mother has left her overly dependent on her father and antidepressants, and Zack … well, it would be spoiling things to say what Zack’s problems are besides an over-fondness for marijuana.
Like the wildly popular Gone Girl, it’s impossible to trust either side of this twisted matrimonial union.
The mystery and suspense in Amy Herzog’s play is what keeps it from becoming just another tale of whiny millennials unsatisfied with their cushy lives. On the surface, Abby and Zack seem #blessed. Abby is an ambivalent actress moonlighting as a yoga teacher (but no one shows for her classes). She admits she has too much free time on her hands yet gave up on her French lessons because “everyone here speaks English anyway.”
Our first encounter with Zack is when Abby returns home one afternoon following Christmas shopping, only to discover her husband having some “quality time with the computer” in their bedroom. Her horrified reaction instantly puts us in Abby’s corner, but don’t expect to stay there for long. Like the wildly popular Gone Girl, it’s impossible to trust either side of this twisted matrimonial union.
Jenny Ledel is fearless as Abby, and that doesn’t just reference the physical aspect of the role. She does disrobe (to say why would be another spoiler), but even when fully clothed she’s astonishingly vulnerable. To play a character who’s not particularly likeable with such understanding means that it’s twice as hard for the audience to pin her down.
“I can have all the trappings of a person I hate and still be a person I like,” she declares after yet another anxiety-ridden outburst. It’s a raw and brave performance from an actress who already sets the bar so high.
STT resident artist Drew Wall is her “homey” (because “sweetie” isn’t hipster enough), and his portrayal of Zack seems more understated — until the plot really takes off. It’s a quieter performance, but when the lights go down on this 90-minute thriller, you might realize Wall has left plenty behind to mull over.
It’s evident that director Lee Trull not only understands the emotional complexity of these characters, but the potential confusion of the play’s timeline as well. He also coaxes strong performances (and even stronger French accents) from Rico Romulus and Aformia Hailemeskel, Abby and Zack’s Senegalese landlords.
It’s a brilliant move by Herzog to juxtapose the troubled Americans with this younger, more responsible couple, mainly because it shows us what picking the right door looks like.
Belleville runs through June 13 at Bryant Hall, and you can go here for tickets.