William Shakespeare wrote 37 plays without any character ever turning to another to say “Are you OK?” The two main characters in Amy Herzog’s 90-minute, four-person drama Belleville say it a lot. The lazy little linguistic glitch is the mark of a playwright less concerned about the literary merits of her work than with turning out a small-cast, easy-to-produce drama that regional companies such as Second Thought Theatre will produce.
And so they have. Belleville is running now on Second Thought’s small stage at Bryant Hall on Turtle Creek. Is it OK? Yes, just. The acting in this company is always tight and hot. Director Lee Trull’s actors for this one — Jenny Ledel and STT company member Drew Wall in the main roles, Rico Romulus and Afomia Hailemeskel in supporting parts — know what they’re doing. It’s just that what they’re doing is psychodrama lite with occasional dollops of implied violence and a soupçon of mystery whose outcome is telegraphed too early and too obviously.
Ledel and Wall play Abby and Zack, a millennial couple who’ve relocated to Paris so he can take his dream post-medical school job doing research on pediatric AIDS. The first we see of her, she’s bursting through the door of their well-furnished flat in Belleville, a bustling artists’ quarter. (The setting has no bearing on the plot. It could just as easily take place in Bed-Stuy or Oak Lawn. The IKEA-inspired décor is by set designer Sarah Brown.)
As Abby strips off layers of sweaters and scarves, she hears moaning from the bedroom. She investigates and surprises Zack, who’s playing hooky from work and enjoying a little me-time with computer porn. Umbrage is taken. A massive migraine befalls hysterical Abby. They tumble onto the tweedy sofa to have sex and go out for a night of heavy drinking.
Right away, we get that something is amiss with these two. Abby quivers with anxiety. Zack, a tireless wife-pleaser, is quick to offer Xanax (does he get free samples?) but she insists she’s weaning herself off all medication. “I’m thinking of resorting to mashing them up in her food,” Zack says to his landlord, young Muslim Alioune, who pops upstairs to collect four months’ back rent and ends up smoking weed with his tenant while Abby zonks out in the bedroom. “She thinks that Paris will be a cure-all for … whatever,” Zack adds. Herzog types choppy, incomplete sentences riddled with “like” and “whatever.”
Abby calls herself an actress but in Paris is trying to teach yoga, though no one shows up for her classes. She’s quit French lessons, too, because “everyone speaks English here.” So to fill the hours while Zack’s at work (or whatever) she shops and talks to her daddy on her cell phone. “I’m so tired of the pressure to be happy!” she says. We’re so tired of plays in which characters talk on cell phones.
From the start, Zack and Abby inspire not sympathy — and remember, they’re the main characters, onstage all the time — but acute dyspepsia. They are the couple you hate sitting next to at brunch. If they were in your family, you’d on-purpose forget to invite them to get-togethers because they’re unpleasant and neurotic. They bicker. They drink too much. They only thing they bring to a party is a huge serving of narcissism.
On top of all that, their nickname for each other is “homey.” What, it’s no longer hip to use “honey” or “sweetie”? Whatever.
Early in Belleville, a shiny meat cleaver is introduced. It’s the equivalent of Chekhov’s first-act gun. Look for it to be back in someone’s hand before the end of the play, maybe dripping with blood. Herzog, loading her play with dramatic clichés, doesn’t ignore that rule. The little suspense that is generated comes from wondering whether it will be Abby hacking up Zack or him her.
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Really, though, we don’t care. These two are so awful they both deserve a chainsaw. The couple we hope stay safe in this scenario are landlord Alioune and his gorgeous wife, Amina. They have a baby downstairs (heard via baby monitor) and they don’t nag at each other every breath the way Zack and Abby do. Every bad thing Zack and Abby are, they aren’t.
The cast does try to make it work. Ledel and Wall are two of Dallas theater’s most reliably watchable and physically fearless younger actors. As Abby and Zack, they have to accommodate clumsy dialogue and struggle to make sudden shifts in mood believable. My, but they’re pretty though. They’ve been naked in other plays and she’s briefly clothes-free in Belleville. Yay, nudity. It’s just hard to enjoy them, dressed or un, as they dribble out Herzog’s soggy arguments between husband and wife, which present lots of reasons for getting to know someone a wee bit better before marrying and then moving overseas with them. Belleville is a play about lies and its main couple are lying every time their lips are moving.
Wall does his most interesting acting in the silent moments of this play, just staring out a window, smoking a bowl. Herzog puts the action on pause twice, as if the audience needed time to catch up with her attempts to get all Hitchcocky with the suspense. The long pauses are unnecessary, though they do give us a break from all the talking. Use these intervals to take inventory of the many attractive vases and ottomans on the set. And keep an eye out for that cleaver, OK?
continues through June 13 at Bryant Hall, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. (next to Kalita Humphreys Theater). Tickets, $25 ($15 student rush), 866-811-4111 and secondthoughttheatre.com.