Jacob H Knoll (Zack) and Gillian Williams (Abby) play a vulnerable couple in “Belleville.” Amy Herzog’s play is the season opener at Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C. (Igor Dmitry)
Watching Belleville is like passing a car crash on Interstate 95. You may want to look away but curiosity is too strong. No matter how dark Studio Theatre’s season opener turns, audiences will keep their wide eyes on it.
College sweethearts Abby and Zach have moved from Baltimore to a cozy Parisian apartment for Zach’s job with Doctors Without Borders. Zach (Jacob H Knoll) researches AIDS treatments for children. Abby (Gillian Williams) teaches yoga. They are a young, sarcastic couple who occasionally finish each other’s sentences.
The play opens with Abby returning home early from the yoga studio one winter day. Everything goes swimmingly until it doesn’t.
Playwright Amy Herzog has written a gem for seasoned theater goers itching for realistic dialogue and characters who say things we sometimes think in our darker moments. Sensitive types and the easily queasy may want to pass on this production. It is not a romantic comedy.
This play isn’t dumbed down. There is no translation of the French dialogue. While anyone who took high school French will be able to follow along, fluent speakers familiar with French slang will enjoy an extra laugh when Zach hangs out with his friend Alioune (Maduka Steady). Conversations between the Americans and the French will feel familiar to anyone who has navigated a new language in a foreign country. The French aren’t forgiving when it comes to pronunciation, and sometimes telling a joke in a foreign country doesn’t work. The humor doesn’t translate.
Contributing to the believability of the play is the charming set. The apartment has an authentic, lived-in look: a fireplace mantle cluttered with framed photos and knickknacks, clothes casually strewn on the. While the play is staged in the couple’s living room, Set Designer Debra Boothcleverly spaces the cozy apartment such that the audience can glimpse into the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom.
Knoll and Williams were stiff early on, but the leads warm up quickly to the dialogue and their delivery feels natural for the remainder of the performance. Their delivery is exceptionally strong toward the end. Knoll’s Zach is a man’s man who keeps up appearances. The way his character takes up space toward the end of the play is almost alarming.
The play contains nudity and adult themes. Belleville is 1 hour and 45 minutes without an intermission.
Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., presents “Belleville” through Oct. 12, 2014. Tuesday-Saturday performances start at 8 p.m. Sunday’s evening performance begins at 7 p.m.Tickets are priced between $44 and $88. For more information, call 202-332-3300.
Megan Kuhn is a financial literacy advocate by day and a theater fan
by night. One of her favorite possessions is the red jacket from “Dead
Man’s Cell Phone” that she purchased at a costume sale at Woolly