Review: Belleville

by Lynn on April 18, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer


At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs, Toronto, Ont. Written by Amy Herzog. Directed by Jason Byrne. Designed by Yannik Larivée. Lighting by Kevin Lamotte. Sound and music composition by Richard Feren. Starring: Dalmar Abuzeid, Allan Hawco, Christine Horne, Marsha Regis.

Produced by the Company Theatre. Plays until May 4.

We are in Paris in a working class area called Belleville (I assume. It’s never mentioned and I doubt the title is referencing the lovely little metropolis of Belleville, Ontario. The name can be taken as ironic, considering what goes on in the play).

Abby has just returned one afternoon, to the cozy apartment she shares with her husband, Zack. She has been shopping. As she closes the front door she hears the unmistakable low moan of lovemaking coming from behind the closed door of the bedroom. She quietly opens the door and peers in then a moment later comes out, with an exasperated look on her face. She is followed by Zack. He’s been watching porn movies on his computer. Why is he home in the afternoon? He’s supposed to be at work with Doctors without Borders. Zack quickly gives her an excuse.

One’s eyebrows begin to knit early in Amy Herzog’s 2011 play. Zack and Abby have been in Paris for four months. His desire is to fight paediatric AIDS, a noble dream, and Doctors without Borders is certainly a noble organization for which to do it. But according to his landlord Zack is four months behind in his rent. One wonders why. The landlord can’t be patient any longer and he will evict them in a few days. Zack has spent a lot of days at home, giving Abby all sorts of excuses, such as wanting to spend time with her.

Zack has not told Abby about the rent or the threat of eviction, perhaps to protect her. Abby is emotionally and mentally fragile. She misses her family in the States and constantly calls home. Her sister is pregnant and that’s another reason to want to be home in the States.

Over the course of Amy Herzog’s problematic play Zack and Abby’s lives will unravel; secrets will be revealed, truths told and improbable twists will take place. The result is a disappointing play and a production that does valiantly to overcome it. When compared with Herzog’s wonderful play 4000 Miles, also produced in 2011, one has to wonder what happened. Perhaps in a way Belleville is an earlier play and Herzog just got better at writing with 4000 Miles. No matter. Belleville is what I have to review.

While I can appreciate that Abby is fragile emotionally and mentally, not knowing that there are problems with Zack and his work after four months in Paris seems a stretch. Herzog is deliberately vague here. Is Zack actually a doctor working in the office or is he waiting for a posting? We aren’t told. Shouldn’t Abby be suspicious when they are still in Paris after four months? She does twig eventually and questions Zack. For a character to have lived a life that is a lie, as Zack has, the dramatic ending comes from no where and is really not supported by anything that has preceded it.

A line on the program front says the play is: “A darkly truthful parable of a generation struggling under the pressures of success and entitlement.”

Uh, I think not. That’s not what I’m seeing in Belleville. Herzog hasn’t addressed anything close to these two people struggling with the pressures of success. They don’t have any success. Is that the point? Then the play should be written to illuminate that. And it doesn’t at the moment. “Entitlement”? Whose? Again, the play does not address that. Belleville is about lack of communication, understanding, honesty between a couple. It’s about mental illness and how it seeps into lives.

As I said, the production tries valiantly to overcome any of the play’s many shortcomings. Allan Hawco has been absent from the Toronto stage for too long—toiling on his television creation, The Republic of Doyle. The chance to play Zack in Belleville has brought him back to the stage. As Zack, Hawco is boyishly charming, He is tightly wound in trying to hide his secrets from Abby, but urgently tender with her. His efforts go into trying to calm her down from her anxiety about home; her suspicions about him, and her penchant for going off the deep end. In the end, his efforts become downright scary.

As Abby, Christine Horne is waif-like, graceful and yet anxious. There is effort to hold on, get a grip. When she says she misses home it hits to the heart. Her anxiety makes her reckless. It’s like we are watching an accident happen again and again.

Jason Byrne has directed the production with a certain boldness. I think it deliberate that some of the dialogue is spoken so softly we can’t hear it, especially with Dalmar Abuzed as the landlord and Marsha Regis as his wife. In fact I made a note for the whole production: “Talk louder!” I can appreciate that Byrne is going for a realistic feel to the conversation and people do talk softly. But theatre is ‘life lived on purpose’, and so surely the audience should hear what the characters/actors are saying.

The play has been described as having touches of Hitchcock and Byrne suggests this nicely. At one point after Zack has been discovered watching porn on his computer, he goes into the kitchen and is seen at the doorway holding a rather large, formidable knife. We think he might be considering some nastiness for Abby. But then he goes back into the kitchen and brings out a cheese board with a small baguette and the knife to cut it all and we realize we’ve been gently duped, for the time being. It’s a good set up. It establishes a bit of tension. All very well and good, but the curves Herzog lobs at us slows the pace in the play and thus the production.

The set by Yannik Larivée has the feel of a French apartment with a quirkiness to it. Kevin Lamotte’s soft lighting also adds to that.

It is good to see Allan Hawco and Christine Horne on any stage. I just wished that the play was more worthy of the effort.

Leave a Comment