If the currency of a healthy relationship is communication then Abby and Zack, the married couples in Amy Herzog’s play BELLEVILLE playing at the Pasadena Playhouse through Sunday, May 13th, will go bankrupt. The play may take place in the heart on Paris, but this show follows as this couple traverse emotions a lot less like love and more like lunacy as they struggle to understand each other.
Set in their apartment over the course of a few days, this play finds a taught emotional suspense as their balance of humor, secrets, mental illness, marital friction, and emotional tension between Abby (Anna Camp) and Zack (Thomas Sadoski). Abby used to be an actress, but now she teaches yoga in Paris while Zach, a doctor, is there to do medical research. They’ve known each other since college, but as the play unfolds they find that there is a lot left to be uncovered.
Camp’s Abby starts out a bit hard to love, making Sadoski’s Zack more endearing for the audience. Both manage the tricky business of upending those initial impressions as more of their characters’ lives come out into the open. Camp starts with a chattering, manic, brittleness, as she talks (and talks, and talks) about her Father, her pregnant sister, and her unhappiness with Paris and learning French but slowly reveals Abby’s vulnerabilities and sweeter nature.
Abby is the first hint that all is not ideal in this marriage when she is explaining her wedding day to the landlord Alioune, played by Moe Jeudy-Lamour, and remarks “I was so happy that day” with a hint of sadness as her happy façade slips ever so slightly that expands as the play moves along.
Sadoski’s Zack seems the more easy going and grounded of the two, but his easy going charm hides the churning emotional person beneath. Sadoski brings a quiet power and tension to Zack, one that gets pulled more and more taut as the play goes on. It’s this that endows this play’s quieter moments with the creeping sense of dread of what may happen when the tension finally snaps.
Both feel disconnected, and desperately need something form the other, but as they try to connect their sense of isolation and helplessness only increases.
The other people in the play are their married Senegalese landlords, Alioune, and Amina played by Sharon Pierre-Louis. It’s through the interactions of these characters that the audience learns more details on Abby and Zacks marriage. Jeudy-Lamour is wonderful as the understanding friend to Zack and put upon landlord , while Pierre-Louis brings a more no nonsense attitude to these troublesome tenants. In their limited time on stage this couple is a nice foil to Abby and Zack; at one point Amina tells Zack that Alioune is upset because he told her so, highlighting that this is a couple that communicates with each other, versus the troubles the other couple has from not communicating.
Directed by Jenna Worsham, this play is a taught 95 minutes as the seemingly innocuous everyday interactions of this couple help build tension and suspense. The twists and turns, both plot wise, and plot wise from funny to dramatic in a heartbeat, seem to flow together naturally. The audience is never fully on anyone’s side because the stakes are always shifting. (Maybe the audience is on the side of the landlords, because they seem like they’ve put up with a lot.) The set is a lovely Parisian apartment as designed by David Meyer’s, and is complimented by the lighting (especially the warm morning light towards the end of the play) designed by Zach Blane.
Like the marriage in question, this play has a few underlying issues that could be addressed. Alioune and Amina feel like they’re mostly there as a way to wedge information into the storyline. If they were more fleshed out they could be more interesting reflections adding some needed dimension between the couples.
Ultimately, this is a marriage with two people who might be unlikeable, but their problems of communication and desperation feel relatable. While their underlying issues and sense of isolation may heighten the drama by allowing Abby and Zack to dance on the knifes edge of madness at times, this is a fascinating dive into one couples issues that speaks broadly to troubles that may seem relatable to the audience.
BELLEVILLE is playing at the Pasadena Playhouse through May 13th. For tickets and showtime information go to www.pasadenaplayhouse.org