Second Thought Theatre’s production of Belleville opens on what appears to be a slice of life vignette: a young American couple navigating the difficulties of marriage in the diverse Parisian neighborhood that lends Amy Herzog’s play its name. But through Lee Trull’s sharp direction it quickly evolves into something more, in equal parts a psychological study of how relationships take a wrong turn and a tense thriller that had more than one audience member wringing their hands before the end.
When Abby, a 20-something yoga instructor played by Jenny Ledel, arrives home after leaving another under-attended class, she opens the bedroom door to find her husband Zack (Drew Wall) skipping out on his job as a medical researcher, “playing doctor” solo with the assistance of a little adult entertainment on his laptop. The resulting confrontation is weighted with more than just the day’s events.
From the first moment that Abby and Zack face off, her almost puritanically enraged and him stumbling in with belt undone, the tension between them is palpable. They try to mask it with sex, excuses, and other distractions, but their carefully constructed fronts begin to peel away to show the truth underneath. The more that unravels, the more it becomes clear that nobody is coming out the other side unscathed.
Ledel gives a brave performance that is stripped down to the skin, sometimes literally. She plays Abby’s neuroses to perfection, angry and biting one moment, vulnerable and sympathetic the next. Abby seems to have a gut feeling that things will fall apart the second she lets go, and Ledel’s restless movements and tense posture fill the silence in ways that Abby’s manic babble does not.
Wall’s portrayal of Zack is a slow burn, mixing an awkward tenderness for his wife with a darker caginess that hints at something beyond his secretive vices and the suspicious calls from work. Zack is struggling to find a balance between supporting Abby and his own selfish desires, and when Wall goes off-kilter is when the play takes its most surprising turns.
Rico Romalus Parker and Afomia Hailemeskel are solid as Alioune and Amina, Abby and Zack’s young, married-with-children landlords. Even when Alioune has broken her trust and the worst has happened, Amina tells him “c’est pas une catastrophe” — it’s not a catastrophe, at least not for them. It is a bittersweet moment that offers a contrasting view of how a healthy relationship can flourish, even at its lowest points.
Sarah Brown’s set design is a striking complement to the play’s hidden secrets. It is constructed with a series of doors — some are functional, giving a working sense of a garret apartment, while others linger around the periphery of the stage, firmly shut and providing no escape from the building dread.
Herzog is never one to shy away from the juxtaposition of reality and perception in her work, showing the power of truth and the way it can transform, for better or for worse. Belleville is no different, giving an uncomfortable look at how love isn’t the only thing that sustains a relationship, and how lies can poison even the best of intentions.