By Maureen Lee Lenker
April 23, 2018 at 05:30 PM EDT
Philicia Endelman

Families who keep secrets from each other have long provided ripe material for playwrights — from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to August Osage County to Other Desert Cities. Amy Herzog’s latest, Belleville, which is now making its Los Angeles premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse, picks up these ever-pertinent dramatic threads to weave a story that balances on a knife’s edge between the normal tensions of domesticity and something far darker.

It begins when Abby (Anna Camp) comes home to her apartment in the Belleville section of Paris and unexpectedly finds her husband Zack (Thomas Sadoski) home in the middle of the day. It’s clear the two are keeping secrets from each other, nursing resentments and fears while trying to make their marriage work in a foreign environment, but a drunken night out and the revelation that Zack is four months behind on rent sets off a chain reaction that plummets to a shocking and violent conclusion.

Herzog keeps the audience guessing as to which half of the couple to trust as often as they both question each other and their own sanity. In the era of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, it’s difficult to resist guessing at what the true darkness lurking at the edges might be, but the play frequently veers in unexpected directions — even if some of the revelations are perhaps not as dramatic as what the audience might suspect (an unavoidable symptom of our thriller-obsessed culture).

The production is nearly two hours long, and taking up what seems to be a growing trend in the theater, does not have an intermission. If there’s anything that causes the drama to sag, it’s this. There’s arguably a very natural place for an intermission, and the proceedings are just a hair too long; some of the opening scenes require far less breathing room than they’ve been given. If the production were a brisk 90 minutes, it would only serve to ratchet up the tension that dissipates in early scenes.

As Abby and Zack, Camp and Sadoski dominate the bulk of the running time, but the play is granted a crucial sense of place and outside perspective by the downstairs landlord Alioune (Moe Jeudy-Lamour) and his wife, Amina (Sharon Pierre-Louis). Camp and Sadoski give startling performances, dipping into wells of grief, rage, and paranoia they don’t often get to showcase in their most famous screen roles. Sadoski is the stronger of the pair, his amenable scruffiness giving way to truly terrifying desperation. He brings an eerie solidity to the role, lending Zack a grounded sensibility that conceals his deep-seated insecurities — and a well of secrets. It’s rare to watch a performer who bristles like a live wire, leaving you uncertain what they’ll do from one moment to the next, but he does. By the time he strips down to a Stanley Kowalski-worthy tank top, he veers wildly between guilt, suspicion, and despondent grasps for control with unsettling skill.

Philicia Endelman

Camp takes a while to sink into the role; her forced sunny disposition feels disjointed until you realize it’s part of her character’s attempt to stuff down her ever-present paranoia and an acrid bitterness fed by raw grief. Once things start to unravel, she particularly excels, veering from drunken madness to abject terror. Without revealing what exactly is involved, much credit is owed to director Jenna Worsham and the entire production team for crafting a startlingly realistic experience; some of the more intensely violent moments felt more immediate, dangerous, and real than those often seen on screen, a true triumph of stagecraft.

The production offers up musings on the lies we tell each other, particularly those offered up in pursuit of love or as inadequate salves to the wounds of grief. It dips into interesting territory on the subject of gaslighting, asking its protagonists and the audience to question the very nature of truth and how we might arrive at entirely stilted perceptions of our own lives. As it raises questions about gender and mental health and marriage, it flits at the edges of something profound, but in the end, it doesn’t quite pack the punch it should. It’s a gripping ride bursting with suspense and filled with plenty of horrific twists and turns, but, ultimately, it struggles to dig past its shock-and-awe tactics to any significant well of deeper meaning. B+

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