“Belleville”, by the MAP

How many ways can people lie to each other and to themselves? Amy Herzog’s rich, somewhat troubled script explores the question; MAP Theatre’s trademark emotional authenticity provides a swift, brutal look at the consequences of betrayal of others and self.

In a rental flat in Paris, a young married couple, Zack and Abby, live out the American expatriate dream. Zack works days for Doctors Without Borders while his wife shops, teaches yoga, and maintains a co-dependent phone relationship with her hovering father and a sister who is about to give birth.

Kiki Abba and Brandon Ryan -- Photo: Shane Regan
Kiki Abba and Brandon Ryan — Photo: Shane Regan

Of course, nothing is as idyllic as it might seem. Zack and Abby have some issues, and who doesn’t? In the opening scene, Abby, played by Kiki Abba with a manic breeziness that can turn on a centime into despair, remorse, and almost unbearable self-doubt, enters the stage “bearing baggage” — arms, hands and teeth full of stuff from a morning of errands around “the City of Love — or is it the City of Light? I can never remember…”

Her discovery of Zack (Brandon Ryan, multi-sided, pitiable, and frightening) unexpectedly at home and engaged in a very private exercise of the independence his job apparently affords casts the first light of doubt on their set-up. From there, things move toward catastrophe with accelerating tension and dramatic irony.

Abby and Zack in a tender moment -- Photo: Shane Regan
Abby and Zack in a tender moment — Photo: Shane Regan

Behind Abby’s back, Zack soon reveals an alternate self as he shares a bowl with the couple’s landlord, Alioune (cultural contrast and firmness of character ably captured by Tamron Harrison), an up-and-coming young Senegalese immigrant whose steadiness offers an engaging foil to Abby’s hypertension and Zack’s duplicity.

Zack zigzags between affection for his wife and desperation at the hollow shell inside which his weak spirit struggles for a semblance of life. He complains of Abby being “off her meds,” but increasingly turns to his own forms of self-medication to escape the web of lies he has spun.

Under Peggy Gannon’s direction the action moves quickly, with humor, tenderness and riveting intensity. Seeing people twist themselves into impossible knots in pursuit of self-delusion is painfully instructive, and Herzog’s script takes a fast, winding road to disaster in a mere 90 minutes.

Tamron Harrison as Alioune, with Kiki Abba -- Photo: Shane Regan
Tamron Harrison as Alioune, with Kiki Abba — Photo: Shane Regan

Herzog packs in a shade too many themes, however, through which an audience must pick in search of the play’s core: the phone; the opening and closing window; the broken intercom; the bloody toe. While fascinating and increasingly horrifying, the script veers here and there, following its characters as their world flies into pieces, but leaving one wondering, as Abby does as they head out for their date night — “where are we going?” The final scene and denouement leave the landlords to clean up the baggage, and present some pacing challenges that Gannon’s direction doesn’t entirely overcome.

The immigrant landlord couple Alioune and Amina serve more as props to the central characters than as meaningful characters in their own right. This is especially true of the under-written role of Amina, though Mia Tesfay draws a sympathetic character. Their use of somewhat unconvincing French at times to communicate with each other and with Zack may highlight the theme of “communication disorders,” but is confusing to a non-French-speaking audience, especially the final lines of the play that are entirely in French.

The scene design by Brandon Estrella, with its doors behind which so much is hidden, and the brick wall and window through which Zack’s pot smoke wafts, captures the contrasts of the seen and the unseen worlds of people, as well as the possibility of opening, or walling off entirely, one’s true self. The effective lighting and sound designs by Tess Malone and Joseph Schwartz bring a sense of the permeability of the world, with sounds and light entering unexpectedly and revealingly, communicating and exposing in ways more powerful and true than words.

Brandon Ryan and Kiki Abba - Photo: Shane Regan
Brandon Ryan and Kiki Abba – Photo: Shane Regan

MAP Theatre excels at choosing interesting material in which to sink their highly adept acting and directing chops. Belleville provides rich material and a memorable theater experience. The play carries some baggage of its own, though, but perhaps that is fitting. Human beings are imperfect; we lie, we cheat, we delude, we make excuses for our own behavior while condemning others. We are never objective critics.

As Gannon observes in her program notes, there are a million ways to lie; how many ways are there to tell the truth? “Belleville” at the very least maps out the pitfalls of the former, and the tragedy of truth too long suppressed.


Belleville, by Amy Herzog

Directed by Peggy Gannon

MAP Theatre, at 12th Avenue Arts, Capitol Hill

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, March 25 – April 16

All tickets “Pay what you can”

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