As someone who once calmly told Mr. X, “I’m going to stab you with a knife…and I know how to get away with it,” I’m a fan of crazy relationships. (Don’t call the police—it was all in the name of comedy, as are all of our interactions.) So I had really been looking forward to seeing this play at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Sadly, though, despite the publicized review quotes, there’s nothing “thrilling” nor “Hitchcockian” about Belleville. It’s basically a relationship comedy for the first half, and then turns into uber-slow craziness in the second. (And there’s no intermission to differentiate the two, even though there are several perfect places for it. And the play is badly in need of one! The playwright knew what she was doing to not build one in, because she would probably lose much of the audience.) The only mystery about this show is why the Pasadena Playhouse would present it!!!
The writing is so awful that I was amazed to discover that Belleville has been produced in other cities several times over the past five years. Perhaps it’s been better at those other venues, but I can’t imagine it. The main issue is with the murky script by Amy Herzog, rather than the acting. But perhaps a different director, other than Jenna Worsham, could have moved the very slow action along at a quicker pace, which would have helped immensely. But even if they performed it at the speed of the ballet at the end of the movie Bye Bye Birdie, it would not help the confusing writing.
There are a few laughs along the way, with the best line being “To be an actor you have to love to suffer, and I only like to suffer,” a philosophy I totally agree with.
One of the problems with this play is that it needs to decide whether it wants to be a comedy or a psychological drama. I had read the very, very, very misleading blurb on the Playhouse website, which describes Belleville as “a captivating evening of intrigue and suspense as an ordinary night unravels into [a] modern day thriller in this new Hitchcock-style drama,” so my mouth was watering to see it. And when Mr. X laughed very early on, I whispered, “It’s not supposed to be a comedy,” so that he wouldn’t make that mistake again. But then most of the very supportive opening night audience, made up of many show biz colleagues and family members of the two stars, (whom I’ll get to in a minute,) laughed through the first half, so I was very confused. (I laughed only once, Mr. X twice. I could tell the lines were amusing, but they just didn’t make me laugh. And I was filled with dread the whole time, expecting something horrible to happen, because of that advance publicity.)
Actually, until the last few minutes, (before a totally unnecessary denouement,* that is,) I had absolutely no idea what was going on, (and even wrote a note that “halfway through, I still don’t get the point,”) nor the raison d’être for this play. (Did you catch those two French terms? Because it takes place in Paris, of course!)
*[Note: That last little scene is all in French, which is just pretentious. I kept looking around the proscenium arch to see if subtitles were running someplace, but no such luck. So either those few minutes are totally unimportant, as is the entire show in my opinion, or the playwright just wants to show the audience that they’re not as worldly as she. Or she just felt like keeping us captive a bit longer. No matter her impetus, you could just feel the audience itching for it to end at that point.]
We were sitting too far back this time to make-out everything that was being said, especially from the duo with French accents, whose words we could barely make-out at all. Speaking of sitting far back, (which this is the first time I’ve ever done in this theatre,) the gory physical details of this show definitely do not play back there!!! When people gasped when the girl was using a carving knife on her foot, I assumed she had cut off her toe, rather than the nail! I still don’t know what it was supposed to be, but since the actress totally forgot to limp after that event, I assume it was not her toe.
Another negative is the many holes along the way, which I assume are due to bad writing, but it could be the fault of the direction. For example, we hear the husband breaking lots of glass in the bathroom to get his wife out of an unseen tub, but he brings her out, with bloody cuts all over both of them, in a plastic shower curtain! Yes, of course the plastic wrap is so that the actress is not naked, but what shower/tub area has a glass door and a shower curtain?! The answer is—none! (And all shower doors are plastic, anyway, not glass, especially in a low-rent Paris tenement, so the sound of it breaking would have been different, as well.)
And then a door that’s been kicked open (because it was locked) in one scene, all of a sudden fits perfectly and able to be locked in the next, which is continual action. Go figure.
Also, it’s the dead of winter, and it gets established that the wife is always cold, and she first enters all bundled-up, complete with mukluks on her feet, and rocking the most giant scarf I’ve ever seen, but…she’s wearing a shirt that’s slit all the way down the back!!! And when she hits her toe really badly, and is in so much pain, she dons skinny-toed high-heeled boots, which no foot could ever get into if the toe was as messed-up as this play portrays. (Actually, all the wardrobe, by Sara Ryung Clement, is pretty awful, but since that’s the least of this hot mess of a show’s problems, I decided to lay off it.)
This hole comes with a spoiler alert—the couple has been living in Paris for at least four months, living there, I repeat, but when the girl is leaving town for good, all she has is a small duffle bag, which isn’t even big enough to hold more than a few of her aforementioned giant scarves!!! How unrealistic! (I’m not really ruining the narrative for you—after reading this review, I doubt you’ll go see the play.)
Belleville is like a long drawn-out episode of the Jerry Springer show. Only not as disturbing or entertaining, (both of which this plays aims to be.) It’s sort-of a (very) poor man’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. And it totally seems like a play that should be presented at one of the hundreds of little theaters around town, rather than at such a prestigious venue as the Pasadena Playhouse.
Now to the actors doing all the heavy lifting. Mr. X pointed-out that “a lot of work was done” by those two main actors, an assessment with which I totally concur. (There were two others, who barely appeared. But I was always relieved when they did, just for a change of pace.) I’m a fan of the TV seres, Life In Pieces, so, of course I knew who Thomas Sadowski is, but I have never seen a Pitch Perfect, so I was not familiar with Anna Camp. There was nothing wrong with their performances; they just didn’t get to me. Actually, I’ve never before rooted for deaths to be part of the scenario! (Again, not their faults.)
So, the absolute only reason to see Belleville is if you’re a fan of either of these actors. (Or if you just want to feel better about your own life.)
And the David Meyer-designed set is good. It’s very utilitarian and definitely looks like a real apartment.
But I suggest you do yourselves a favor and rather than seeing Belleville, just stay home and watch a two-hour episode of Dateline. No matter the exact topic that night, it will for sure feature a much more interesting and dramatic real-life version of this story.
Belleville running through May 13, 2018
Pasadena Playhouse 39 South El Molino Avenue Pasadena 626-356-7529 www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org