Belleville, a new play in its debut run at the Yale Repertory Theatre, is most provocatively a conversation of objects—most of them of the innocuous, household variety. A baby monitor is broken apart by a frazzled woman who mistakes the cries it emits as those of her unborn niece. A man makes a meager peace offering to his reasonably fed-up landlord with a half-filled hash pipe; later, he forces a buttery pastry into his unwilling, not to mention hung over, wife’s face out of desperation, though not until after she’s performed impromptu surgery on a broken toenail with a large butcher’s knife. A stemless wine glass, the bottom stained with at least two-day-old cheap red residue, sits on a dining table stage right throughout the drama’s duration as a kind of emblem of the collegiate ex-pat fantasy. (This puerile reverie is further filled out within the single set—a small Parisian apartment—by postcards pegged tackily onto the wall, what look like pre-furnished, faux-Arabic throw pillows on a neutral gray couch, and a row of funny little chimneys sprouting off of the roof.) And in perhaps the most devastating example, a guarded cellphone becomes an objective correlative through which issues of miscommunication, betrayal, and manipulation are finally thrown into the intimidating deep end of verbalization.
The above plot points are enacted by an efficient cast of four characters, though this is somewhat less of an achievement than writer Amy Herzog’s reluctance to traffic her cavalcade of objects as individual symbols for anything in particular. Granted, the subtextual significance of, say, the cellphone that Zack (Greg Keller) refuses to relinquish to his disturbed wife, Abby (Maria Dizzia), for fear that she’ll abandon their increasingly detached marriage and flee back to the U.S. and to her father, with whom she’s spoken daily since her mother’s death, is made grossly clear. As is that of the squawking baby monitor-cum-biological-time-bomb, left behind after a heated, dead-of-night confrontation with Zack and Abby’s Senegalese landlord, Alioune (Gilbert Owuor) and his spouse Amina (Pascale Armand). (It should be noted that race, too, signifies surprisingly little in this narrative, aside from providing varying shades of outsider-ship.) But these devices, and the other domestic clichés traded back and forth viciously between the characters, leave so little for us to unpack that they make us nervous; the rawness of Herzog’s object handling becomes a startling illustration of the razor-thin membrane between modern tool and modern hazard.
The play, as directed by Anne Kauffman, teeters on the edge of an anxiety attack from the first scene, where Abby comes home from Christmas shopping to the womanly injury of Zack jacking off to Internet porn. (Sometimes tools and hazards can inhabit the same object at the same time.) Abby’s followed her recent med school-grad husband to Paris for a gold-hearted AIDS-research gig and found little in the way of romance or job prospects. After the embarrassing opening, she spouts exposition to Alioune about her marriage and her withered aspirations as a young actress while they wait for Zack to finish a shower; she gets stuck in seemingly arbitrary memories, hurtling with over-intimate verbal diarrhea into (finally) clipped, apologetic self-awareness.
Dizzia’s shrillness in the first act distracts us from some thickly spread background detail, but she quickly blooms with scared fury as she begins to sense the icy peril of the path she’s on. By the end of act one, we learn (out of Abby’s earshot) that Zack is behind four months on the rent, and that Abby is sick of having to curate what seems like an unattainable happiness. (“Did your parents ever tell you that you could do whatever you wanted when you grew up, so long as it made you happy?” she asks Alioune, who runs his own business in the titular neighborhood at the age of 25. “I’m beginning to think it’s one of the worst things you can tell a child.”)
Things go downhill quickly from there. We see Abby and Zack return from a bar date, the former drunk, and then Zack commits a series of grievous errors that reveal his true nature to us, Abby, his landlords, and possibly himself. The tragic conclusion to all this twentysomething errata feels somewhat too tragic; after a hilariously climactic second-act break exfoliates the story’s most interesting objects, Herzog’s dialogue becomes hyper-literal and transparent in a weirdly indulgent way. By the end, the play’s basically a checklist of post-grad apprehensions concatenated into a morbid fantasy: “Oh, God, but what if I can’t find a job and I have to pay off my student loans anyway and I get trapped in a loveless marriage with a cipher and we move to Europe and get stuck there and I wind up on antidepressants that don’t work and…” and so forth. Given the median age of the actors and off-stage dramatists and the university environment that commissioned the play, this angst begins to feel unsavorily reflexive.
Still, Keller’s in-over-his-head performance snarls unexpectedly in the otherwise floppy third act, even if his mannerisms are a mite over-coached. (He tends to plant his hands, which are arguably his most formidable emotive asset, compulsively in his pockets when his character feels threatened.) And the final scene, fittingly, shows Alioune and Amina tenderly exchanging French while they clean up the objects that have come to define the space of Belleville. It seems disrespectful to think of those objects as “props,” which is probably the most curious compliment I’ve ever given a dramatic production.
Belleville’s run at the Yale Repertory Theatre ends November 12th.