By Patrick Hurley
What is happening to theater? Why do so many theatrical experiences end in a shrug of bewilderment? The elements of dramatic tension, conflict and drama are better served on Netflix these days. Where relevance once used to dwell, so much of the theater now is just a retreat into a writer’s self-indulgence, which is disguised as exploration, but really only explores privilege. In a propitiating of our own expectations and whatever it was that drew us to the theater in the first place, we are at the mercy of dramatic action-less naturalism that is meant to reflect something close to “real life,” but in some cases does the very opposite. It seems as though more and more theater is becoming like that older relative we all want to avoid at parties- out of date, out of touch and kinda elitist.
Where does Belleville a new play by Amy Herzog fall into the current trend of theater. Well, it’s performed live. And it’s meant to be hyper-naturalistic in its setting and character development. It’s claiming to be a thriller, and there are even critics in the world who have favorably compared it to Hitchcock. This must be the result of desensitized reviewers who see a parallel from A to B and draw positives from it because if A was good, B must be too. Hitchcock was a master of suspense, a master manipulator of image, and his movie’s are known for their meticulous camera work and psychological effect on the viewer. His stories weren’t set up/punchline, paint by number dramas that look to excuse their flaws by having one big explanation in the end. They were humanistic at heart and delved into the psychological underpinnings of sometimes less than honorable people. Let me clear: nothing close to Hitchcock happens on the stage at the Pasadena Playhouse during this sometimes insufferable, kind of irksome play.
For starters the set up is minimal and not effective. The stasis of the world is thrown off because Abby (Anna Camp) finds her husband Zack (Thomas Sadoski) at home masturbating to porn instead of being at work. Why wasn’t he at work? The mystery needs a jumping off place and after 90 or so minutes, this is the point we will come back to as the thing she should have noticed was wrong.
Next, we have over 100 minutes of a play in which the reveal is so low stakes and lacking in dramatic action that I’m going to spoil it for you now: So yeah, spoilers ahead!
Zack, who is supposed to be going to work every day as a doctor helping to cure pediatric AIDS, hasn’t been going to work because he doesn’t actually work to cure Pediatric AIDS—in fact, he’s never even finished medical school! He’s been elaborately lying to his wife.
That’s brings us to the biggest flaw of the play. We don’t know. It could be because he’s crazy. It could be because she’s crazy. The playwright certainly wants us to think she’s crazy. It could be because he wants to Gaslight her. It could be because we need the plot point that allows him to go into the bathroom and commit suicide. I don’t know. But I do know that I nor you should care.
Okay, so he lied because he wants to keep his wife happy– Let’s go with that one, because that seems to be the actual reason according to the ending of this play. But she’s not happy. She’s sad because she can’t go home for the holidays. But she can! He doesn’t have a job! He’s behind four months on the rent! So he could have made up a lie that he was fired and taken her home! Why didn’t he just do that? The stakes for the lie don’t hold the lie up. So it’s one hundred preposterous. We didn’t need the entire play at all.
Then, there’s the business of him keeping her phone away from her. He won’t let her have her cellphone. Why? I don’t understand. Does he want to control her? Does he think he’s keeping her as a hostage? Did he move her to Paris to keep her away from her family? Is that how he’s going to keep her happy? Does she use the phone to hurt herself? I don’t understand. It has no motivation. It has no bearing on anything that happens in the play. He just simply won’t let her have her phone. Like ever. Oh! It’s meant to set up the idea that he might kill her. We have to have evidence to think he might be a sociopath. Why? I don’t know. He never wants her to talk to her dad, or to get updates about her sister who is having labor induced because of a medical issue, so we naturally assume he’s going to take that huge knife from the bread plate and kill her. Right? Maybe. I don’t know. And like how did he take her to Paris as a College dropout with no job?!
We don’t know. I guess we just have to go with it because white privilege is whacky.
Then there’s the ending. Or the first ending. There are three. But this is not Clue, because it doesn’t really matter who did what to whom, it just comes to a long climactic scene where we go through a whole bunch of possibilities. First, we think she’s going to kill herself in the bathroom, (Not sure why) then we think he’s going to kill her (still not sure why), then we think he’s going to kill himself, nope, he’s gonna kill her, nope she’s gonna escape from him, nope she loves him, she understands they’ve both just gotten off track from their lives. Is she manipulating him to get away from him? Does he really want to kill her? And why? All of it…just why? And if you can get the audience to believe that one character really might kill the other, you have to give him bigger stakes than just being a liar who’s trying to make his wife happy. It’s not compelling to simply have a reveal, you gotta earn it. And sadly, Belleville doesn’t even come close.
Written by Amy Herzog
The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101
Now through Sunday, May 13
Wednesday – Friday evenings at 8:00 p.m.
Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.
Sunday at 2:00 p.m.
Tickets Prices start at $25
Online — PasadenaPlayhouse.org
By phone at 626-356-7529
In person — Pasadena Playhouse Box Office, located at 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101
Information:For more information on all productions at Pasadena Playhouse visit PasadenaPlayhouse.org.