If you’ve ever sat through a Martin McDonagh play — or any number of Shakespeare’s tragedies or histories, for that matter — you’ve seen your share of blood, guts, and gore on stage. But nothing quite like what the petite Maria Dizzia does with an absurdly large kitchen knife in Amy Herzog’s intriguing but formulaic Belleville (playing through March 31 at Off Broadway?s New York Theatre Workshop). If you can watch the whisper-quiet, dimly lit, and gasp-worthy scene without averting your eyes, then you’re made of stronger stuff than I.
The episode is all the more horrifying because Dizzia’s character, Abby, is stumbling-down drunk and hopped up on valium, and the knife is placed conveniently within her reach only moments earlier by her husband, Zack (a wonderfully creepy Greg Keller). Suddenly, Zack seems a lot less loving than he did when he was feeding his plastered wife a baguette, and the couple’s temporary Parisian apartment doesn’t radiate the romance that it did in the daylight. Those artsy vaulted ceilings suddenly feel oppressive; the door — with its knob smack in the middle (how quirky!) — closes with the heavy thud of a vault. Something is terribly, terribly wrong, and if you think you’ve figured it out, you’re probably wrong.
That’s part of what makes Belleville so engrossing: Just when you think you know where it’s headed, Herzog’s play takes a sharp turn. Unpredictability is one of the playwright’s many, many talents. (Stylistically, Belleville, a commission from Yale Repertory Theatre, where it premiered in October 2011, bears precious little resemblance to her previous, character-driven work: 2010’s After the Revolution, 2011’s 4000 Miles, and last year’s outstanding The Great God Pan.) So, for that matter, is economy. From the first scene, we know Abby and Zack’s marriage is on the rocks; the mundane discussion of Christmas gifts — not to mention the 10- to 15-foot distance between them — couldn’t be more awkward. Or realistic.
In plotting out this theatrical thriller, however, Herzog is a bit too tidy. Abby and Zack’s French-Senegalese landlords, Alioune (Phillip James Brannon) and Amina (Pascale Armand), are welcome additions to the cast, but they feel less like actual people than methods of propelling the suspenseful story forward. Still, I’m waiting with baited breath for Herzog’s next drama. A thriller, a family drama, a character study…who knows where she?s headed? B
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