A gray-and-blue yoga mat is among the first and final objects to be carried on and off stage in Belleville, the season-opening play at Studio Theatre. Artistic Director David Muse helms the show, and surely he is familiar with Logan Circle semiotics: The woman who balances shopping bags, her cell phone, and a yoga mat is a busy multitasker who still finds time for a little solace. But Belleville is a neighborhood in Paris, not D.C., and for Abby, the American ex-pat at the center of the play, it’s all downward dog dives from the moment she sets that mat down in her apartment and hears another woman moaning with pleasure in her bedroom.
Belleville is the second Amy Herzog play Studio has staged in as many years. Most of her previous works, including 4,000 Miles, have been about lefty politics and intergenerational relationships. Belleville is more narrowly focused, and no one is dissing capitalist enterprises, especially Christmas shopping. Abby (Gillian Williams) and Zack (Jacob H. Knoll) are spending their first holidays apart from their families, and making merry in a small apartment with angel cookies and a petit arbre de Noël. They can’t travel home because Doctors Without Borders, the international agency that employees Zack as an AIDS researcher, has somehow fucked up their visa paperwork. Rather than ask questions, Abby stresses over the impending birth of her first niece back in the States and offers cookies to her landlord.
“So, what do Muslims do for Christmas?” Abby stammers to Alioune (Maduka Steady) when he comes up to smoke some weed with Zack away from the watchful eye of his wife, Amina (Joy Jones). All four actors are superb at playing these layered characters, especially in the opening scenes that are rife with situational comedy. Both sets of 20-somethings have marriages more complex than the unions of some couples who have been joined for decades. What’s apparent, and remains obvious throughout the play, is that Zack and Abby are attracted to each other, engaging in friendly butt-slapping and midday sofa sex.
A friendly note tucked into reviewers’ press kits asks critics not to reveal “any major plot details,” but there’s a giant kitchen knife pictured in all the marketing materials. It is used. What’s problematic about the play isn’t the plot itself, but Zack and Abby’s backstory, much of which is related late in the game. Up until that point, we’ve been willing to believe how these two people’s lives arrived at their present state, and then suddenly, the exposition doesn’t make sense—from little things like dates not adding up, to some rather preposterous final lies.
Illogical details aside, Belleville remains the sort of unsettling tragedy that stays with you, because this production treats all four of Herzog’s characters with more sympathy than they have for each other. “It’s not actually a catastrophe,” Amina says to her husband, in French, at the play’s end. It’s not clear whether he agrees with her. Or should.