"Belleville" (Steppenwolf Theatre): Thriller? Drama? Comedy?

"Belleville" (Steppenwolf Theatre):  Thriller? Drama? Comedy?

Steppenwolf Theatre presents the World Premiere of Belleville.

 Playwright Amy Herzog’s debut is a head scratcher.  On one hand, the acting is so genuine I’m pulled into this couple’s codependent relationship.  Kate Arrington (Abby) and Cliff Chamberlain (Zack) are a couple.  Their history is immediately apparent in the familiar teasing, finishing each other’s stories and flirtatious affection.  They each have some destructive behaviors but the loving acceptance seems to keep them together.  Chamberlain gets high.  Arrington bakes cookies for his stoner pal. Arrington gets trashed.  Chamberlain carries her home.  Sure, they are enablers but it works for them. 

On the other hand, the show is billed as a ‘taut, edgy psychological thriller.’ And that’s the real puzzler. It never reaches suspense levels.  I’m never gripped in overwhelming fear for a character.  Decisions, like what to cut bread or a toenail with, are definitely mysterious choices but not in the terrorizing way.  They’re more odd than scary.   In one of the final scenes, big secrets are revealed.  It’s the characters’ reactions to the news that isn’t quite plausible to how we’ve experienced this relationship. And that’s a problem.     

Herzog’s story doesn’t work.  If it’s indeed a thriller, it needs to go darker.  Sinister elements need to be introduced earlier.  Director Anne Kauffman needs to heighten the tension.  We need to feel the anxiety.  Abrupt actions should be finessed to seem more deliberate and maniacal. If someone is caught lying, it shouldn’t be a goofy happenstance. In a thriller, the permeating desperation ought to keep us rattled and on the edge of our seats. 

Alternatively, Herzog could drop the thriller aspect and go relational… comedy or drama. The script spends a lot of time establishing the relationship between the husband and wife.  Some of the dialogue is hilarious.  So, we know that they are likable and unusual.  Herzog could introduce the secrets earlier and make the two deal with it.  The Muslim neighbors add an interesting twist and have plenty of potential conflict especially played by the talented Alana Arenas (Amina) and Chris Boykin (Alioune).  Right now, Arenas and Boykin are under-utilized except in a weirdly long cleaning scene. 

Steppenwolf’s marketing tools ask ‘does anyone really know who they’re with?’  Well, in BELLEVILLE, the audience need to understand better who these people are and why they do what do.      

Running Time:  One hour and forty minutes with no intermission

At Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted

Written by Amy Herzog

Directed by Anne Kauffman

Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays at 7:30pm

Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm

Wednesdays (8/7, 8/14, 8/21) at 2pm

Thru August 25th

Buy Tickets at www.steppenwolf.org

Leave a comment