Beauty is Skin Deep in Yale Rep’s Belleville

By Amy J. Barry

Belleville -- the Parisian neighborhood where Amy Herzog’s play of the same name is set means “Beautiful City.” But like everything else in this artful, insightful production premiering at Yale Rep, directed by Anne Kauffman, there is a darker underbelly to what may appear on the surface as beautiful—or what our wishful thinking and distorted perceptions perceive as truth.


Nothing really happens and everything happens in this four-person ensemble starring Zack (Greg Keller) and Abby (Maria Dizzia) a young married ex-pat couple renting an apartment in the avant-garde, up-and-coming Belleville from the young French-Senegalese Alioune (Gilbert Owuor) and his wife Amina (Pascale Armand).


It’s not described as such, but Belleville is really a psychological thriller due to Herzog’s intense, tautly choreographed script, coupled with Kauffman’s spot-on direction. We are on the edges of our seats from beginning to end of the one hour and 40 minute, intermission-less production.


The question of what’s really going on? is planted in the opening scene in which Abby walks into the apartment to find Zack uncharacteristically home from work in the middle of the day -- and let’s just say, enjoying himself a little too much from the sounds coming from the bedroom.


We learn they’ve only been married a few years, and that he’s a doctor—his mission to keep kids from contracting pediatric AIDS -- and she’s an out of work actress, teaching yoga.


We want to like this hip young, seemingly normal couple, but are increasingly unnerved by gnawing questions about their motivations and duplicitous behavior.


Everyone is hiding something. Why does Alioune come up to the apartment to smoke a joint with Zack, unbeknownst to Amina, and threaten to evict Zack if he doesn’t come up with the back rent? Why is Zack late on the rent and hiding this information from Abby? And hiding the fact that he’s constantly stoned?


Zack informs Alioune that the couple is in Belleville because going to Paris was Abby’s dream, but as soon as they arrived, she went off her meds for anxiety and depression, and still isn’t happy -- “It’s a nightmare,” he says.


Dizzia’s portrayal of Abby is superb -- she captures the spirit of the disarming, funny, self-deprecating, young woman, who is clearly in pain and not quite right, but seemingly not as ‘crazy” as depicted by Zack.  She jokes, “To be an actor, you need to love to suffer. I only like to suffer.”


Keller’s body language especially captures the essence of his contradictory character—sweet and laid back one minute, disturbed and anxious the next. His expressions and movements elicit compassion, fear and revulsion all at once.


Alioune and Amina are harder to warm to, mostly by intent, as they are the ones in control -- the responsible ones, and eventually, the “wronged” parties. But where Owuor’s Alione shows emotion, Armand’s Amina is a bit too harsh and hard to read.


Tensions mount after Zack and Abby go on a date night and Abby comes home drunk. She wants to talk to her father, with whom she is in constant contact. She is worried about her sister, who is about to give birth. We wonder about Abby’s relationship with her father -- is it just a loving father-daughter relationship or is there something else, something more disturbing?


There’s always a logical explanation for something nerve wracking -- a knife becomes a metaphor for the concept “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” -- well, maybe. Zack comes out of the kitchen with a huge gleaming blade. Abby freaks, but he simply uses it to slice a loaf of bread. Abby then starts dangerously playing with the knife, acting like she’s going to use it. Zack freaks, and she says she’s just kidding. The knife keeps reemerging until it finally reemerges in a most awful way.


There is a lot to ponder in this engrossing, very well executed performance, enhanced by Julia C. Lee’s scenic design of the shabby chic bohemian apartment, and Nina Hyun Seung Lee’s warm and cool lighting, delineating night and day, and emphasizing the drama’s wide-ranging moods.


Belleville continues through Nov.12 at Yale Repertory Theatre (1120 Chapel Street, at York Street). Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 203- 432-1234.


This review appears in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers and online, Nov. 9, 2011.


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