Sunday, May 4, 2014

Belleville at CanStage

Yesterday, on my last rainy day in Toronto, I took in a matinee of Amy Herzog's Belleville. A hit Off-Broadway last spring, the play is being mounted by The Company Theatre in a co-presentation with Canadian Stage at the Berkeley Street Theatre. The play revolves around a young American couple--white, well-educated, and affluent (apparently)--living in the culturally diverse Parisian suburb that gives the play its title. Zack (played by Allan Hawco, of Republic of Doyle fame, and also Co-Artistic Director of The Company Theatre) is a paediatrician working with Doctors without Borders. His wife, Abby (a superb Christine Horne) teaches the occasional yoga class, but otherwise seems still to be burdened by the death from cancer of her mother five years ago, and vexed that because of a snafu with their visas she and Zack can't make it home for Christmas and the birth of her sister's first child.

However, this apparently placid idyll of two Americans in Paris shows cracks from the very top of the show when Amy returns home early from a cancelled yoga class to discover Zack masturbating to Internet porn. This isn't the only of Zack's recreational pursuits about which Abby pretends to be cool but clearly reproves. Zack also likes to get high with their Senegalese landlord Alioune (a fine Dalmar Abuzeid). However, Alioune has dropped in this particular afternoon, we soon learn when Abby is out of the room, to collect on four months overdue rent he and his wife Amina (Marsha Regis, in a small but pivotal role) are owed.

This isn't the only secret Zack is keeping from Abby, and part of the tense-making pleasure in watching this play is seeing just how carefully, and with what uncanny (a word parsed in the play by Abby) command of dramatic suspense, Herzog parcels out the troubling holes in her protagonists' life stories, blanks that are being filled in for each other simultaneously with us learning about them. Not that the play is a mere exercise in genre (though it certainly succeeds on that front, with obvious parallels to 19th-century melodrama--also a word self-consciously referenced in the play). Indeed, what elevates the play beyond the conventions of its plotting is the unique mix of personal empathy and social judgment that Herzog (a finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prize) brings to her portrait of a class of affluently aimless Millennials for whom the negotiation of a single day is disproportionately perilous and paralytic when placed in the context of people the world over who are struggling with far more complex burdens--and still getting on with their lives.

This is where Alioune and Amina come in. An early conversation between Abby and Alioune deftly cuts to the chase in a comic exchange about their respective ages (he thinks she's older than she is and she is surprised to learn he's only 25, but already has two children with Amina, as well as a successful property management company). This scene takes on added weight when, following the climax of the play (which is bloody, but not in the way we have been primed to expect), we witness an epilogue in which Alioune and Amina are literally cleaning up after their white tenants' mess.


No comments: