Studio Theatre’s ‘Belleville’ is sure to surprise even the most jaded theatergoer

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By Jordan Wright (Photo/Igor Dmitry)

In Amy Herzog’s “Belleville,” — now playing at Washington’s Studio Theatre — the viewer is afforded a plate glass window through which to view the seemingly idyllic Parisian life chosen by an attractive young American couple.

Eager to absorb the culture, Abby and Zack bring their hipster lifestyle to the City of Lights, with Abby asking if it should instead be known as the “City of Life.” However, the city becomes a mirror for the couple that reflects their secrets and insecurities back at them.

Zack has taken a job working on children’s AIDS research, a cause Abby finds noble. It is just one aspect of what appears to be a charmed life, but the innocents abroad have brought along more than their dreams and suitcases to the multicultural neighborhood of Belleville. They have packed their emotional baggage, too, and what a horrid Freudian-filled brew it is.

The first two scenes unwind slowly with an overlong setup that lays out the dynamics of the couple. It lingers on their interpersonal issues and focuses on a budding friendship with their landlord, Alioune (Maduka Steady), a successful 25-year-old Senegalese man who lives in the building with his wife and two children. Abby’s self-effacing responses to the landlord, and her forgiving manner towards Zack, lull us into a false sense of ease about the couple’s relationship.

Gillian Williams portrays a lithe, vulnerable Abby, caught up in a Parisian fantasy. With pressure to compete with her sister’s successful marriage and win her father’s affection, she alternately needles and coddles Zach.

“I can be emotionally abusive,” she confesses.

Williams’ ability to shift gears from kitten to tiger — as well as to emotional wreck and back again — is riveting. To counterbalance her neuroses, Jacob H Knoll gives an equally taut performance as Zack, an emotionally stunted husband who constantly seeks her approval.

Meanwhile, Steady and Joy Jones, as Amina, give solid performances as the landlord and his disapproving wife.

In an accompanying media kit, reviewers were asked to “not reveal any major plot details,” so don’t expect any further revelations as to where the play is headed, in honor of the playwright’s sense of suspense and surprise.

But be forewarned, it is explosive and chilling, and sharp objects are involved.

“Belleville” runs through October 12 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St., Washington, D.C. 20005. For tickets and information, call 
202-332-3300 or visit 
www.studiotheatre.org.

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