Monday, July 15, 2013

Even With Powerful Performances, 'Belleville' Isn't a Ringing Success -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a play by Amy Herzog
directed by Anne Kauffman
Steppenwolf Theater, Chicago
Thru August 25, 2013

Kate Arrington is a beautiful actress I've often enjoyed watching onstage at Steppenwolf Theatre, where she is an ensemble member.

She is truly terrific in Belleville, a recent play by Amy Herzog, a talented writer whose After the Revolution I enjoyed last year at Next Theater in Evanston.

Playing Zack, husband to Arrington's Abby, Cliff Chamberlain--who I've also seen numerous times--is also very good, as are Belleville's two other cast members, Alana Arenas and Cliff Boykin.

The play is based in Paris and its set design is that of a rather impressive apartment in the City of Lights' Belleville neighborhood.

The Tribune's theater critic Chris Jones--who I generally trust--gave Belleville a rather positive review, and promotional blurbs refer to Hitchcockian-like suspense.

Photo Credit on all: Michael Brosilow /
But even with all that going for the play, I left the approximately 100-minute piece--after a moderated postshow discussion--unconvinced of its true merits.

Now, though it doesn't make for much of a revelatory review, if you are going to see Belleville--and while I can't really rave about the show in full, Arrington's performance and Steppenwolf's production values well-merit the $20 day-of-show discount ticket I was able to acquire--you are probably better off having no advance knowledge of anything that happens in it.

So all I will share, and basically have already, is that Zack and Abby are recently married expatriate Americans living in Belleville. Alouine (Boykin) is Zack's friend, but also the landlord, and he is married to Amina (Arenas, a Steppenwolf ensemble member).

The play begins somewhat grippingly, but then seems to pretty much simmer for the next hour. This slow boil reminded me of some great Hitchcock thrillers, but what winds up happening never quite reaches that level of mastery.

I'll refrain from any specifics--though would be happy to discuss Belleville if you see it--but part of the problem for me is that both Arrington and Chamberlain pretty convincingly play two people I really didn't like.

I assume this is quite a testament to their acting ability, but I'd rather get a fulfilling play--even if not a heartwarming one--than merely a technical exercise.

Though I never quite sensed the right amount of bristling tension, Herzog's script sets up a variety of
intriguing possibilities. Yet I found myself unsatisfied where things wind up, and even a bit puzzled as Herzog seems to throw in a MacGuffin or two.

Particularly because of the performances and the scenery, Belleville is far from unwatchable; although I wasn't entirely captivated or convinced, I was never bored. 

So, especially with Steppenwolf's generous discount offers, I am not telling you not to see it. It could well be a high-quality work that I just didn't properly appreciate. 

But with hopes that Belleville will toll a bit better for thee, I can't quite give it a ringing endorsement.

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