When Abby walks in on Zack entertaining himself, so to speak, with porn, it takes some time for them both to recover from the shock. Zack doesn't understand why Abby is home so early from the yoga class she was scheduled to teach, and Abby can't figure out why Zack, a doctor, isn't with his patients.
But the biggest surprise is the discovery that this American husband and wife living in the Belleville section of Paris may not know each other as well as they suppose. A portrait of a marriage coming undone, Amy Herzog's "Belleville," which opened Sunday at Pasadena Playhouse, is a stylish psychological thriller predicated on the idea that the person closest to you may in fact be a complete stranger.
The play, as mysterious and unpredictable as the strained relationship it depicts, sets up expectations only to subvert them. It's intentionally tricky to find one's footing as this contemporary relationship drama, a tale of two millennials fumbling abroad, morphs into modern-day Hitchcock, complete with a large knife and rivulets of blood.
The production, directed by Jenna Worsham, features a charming apartment set by David Meyer that suggests the hipster lifestyle pervading this gentrifying neighborhood. The enchanting Parisian views from the large windows never let Abby (Anna Camp) and Zack (Thomas Sadoski) forget that they are now islanded together, foreigners among the disdainful, elegant French.
Abby regularly shares her feelings to correct her husband's. Zack assumes the role of caretaker to control her and cover up his lies. They call each other "homey" when feeling insecure, but the term of endearment has the ring of an IOU.
The couple's claustrophobic dependency is alleviated by visits from Alioune (Moe Jeudy-Lamour), the Senegalese-French landlord, who drops by to smoke bowls of weed with Zack. Married with a baby, Alioune appreciates the respite from the domestic grind. His wife, Amina (Sharon Pierre-Louis), a headscarf-wearing Muslim with a no-nonsense demeanor, runs a tight ship. But he quietly lets Zack know that he's imposed too long on their friendship and must come up with the four months back rent or face eviction.
Herzog, the author of "4000 Miles," "Mary Jane" and other discreetly adventurous plays that are never quite as straightforward as they seem, allows suspicions and doubts to accumulate. Why does Zack owe so much money? Is there a reason he keeps skipping work and why's he smoking so much pot? Should we be concerned that Abby has gone off her anti-depressants and is no longer making an effort to learn French? And what to make of the constant telephone contact she has with her widowed father, whose updates on her sister's pregnancy are clearly getting under Zack's skin?
The naturalism of these scenes, in which the glitches in human behavior are casually revealed through the awkwardness of silence and the annoyance of too much speech, is lost in Worsham's production. The actors often over-theatricalize their exchanges, leaving little room to register the interior blips and bumps occurring between words.
In portraying Abby, Camp, a film and TV actress (the "Pitch Perfect" films, "True Blood") with a solid stage résumé, puts everything on the surface. Coddled and entitled, Abby is 28 going on 22, which is why she gets so upset when Alioune, who's only 25, guesses she's 32.
Camp paints an accurate enough external portrait, but there's not much stirring inside the character. Abby's banter with Alioune and Zack initially plays like sitcom dialogue, draining the work of its neo-Pinteresque menace and setting up erroneous expectations of what stylistically lies ahead.
Sadoski, an unimpeachably good stage actor in his early 40s, might be a tad old for Zack, who went to college with Abby and recently finished medical school to take a job with Doctors Without Borders. The difference in how you perceive a guy who's not yet 30 and one who is over 40 is not insignificant in a play about a couple forced finally to reckon with realities that have too long been postponed.
The acting in Worsham's imprecise production is jangled at points; beats are missed and subtext is sometimes ignored. Having seen Anne Kauffman's impeccable 2013 production of "Belleville" at New York Theatre Workshop starring Maria Dizzia and Greg Keller, I was keenly aware of what was no longer happening between the lines.
As the suspense intensifies, Worsham ramps up the directorial flourishes, with blinking lights and sound effects, instead of digging deeper into the play's psychological substance. It can feel at times as though she's directing the movie studio version of "Belleville."
The more hair-raising moments are handled with unflinching effectiveness. (I had to look away as Abby, having badly stubbed her toe, performs a bit of butchery on the afflicted toenail.) But credulity is occasionally a casualty of the overemphatic staging, as when, after a drunken night, Abby inexplicably smashes the baby monitor Amina left behind. (The stage directions only call for Abby to stumble out of bed, unable to place the sound of the crying infant.)
Still, the production seizes our attention with the slippery intrigue. It's never clear how far the play is going to veer into "Psycho" territory. (Warning: Abby and Zack spend a fair amount of time in the bath and shower.) The uncertainty makes us squirm all the more.
Perhaps the most unsettling moments are when Zack and Abby's intimacy turns threatening. Here, the acting is at its convincing best, the focus squarely on the desperate transactions made for love and security.
As Alioune and Amina, Jeudy-Lamour and Pierre-Louis excel when playing off each other in relatively simple French. They provide ironic cultural commentary of these stunted, privileged Americans. But more important, the characters extend Herzog's insight into the bargain with the truth two people make when they entwine their lives.
"Belleville" is deviously difficult to pin down. This uneven Pasadena Playhouse production complicates matters further, but the arresting drama unfolds in the mind like a scary dream that demands to be decoded in the cold light of day.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 2 & 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 13
Tickets: Prices start at $25
Contact: (626) 356-7529 or www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Follow me @charlesmcnulty
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