In The FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training's latest production, a young couple’s life seems too good to be true. It is.
Folks are afraid of spiders, snakes, tight spaces, heights, crowds, clowns and all manner of things.
But the unknown dials the fear factor up to 11.
Something is happening, and you don’t know what it is.
It’s a classic recipe for suspense. Directors like Hitchcock and Polanski have brewed up plenty of fear with it. When the truth is finally revealed, it turns out what you don’t know can hurt you.
Your husband, psychiatrist, family physician and friendly neighbors are actually a Satanic cult scheming to make you the Antichrist’s mom. That friendly dude in the spare room is a Nazi spy.
Playwright Amy Herzog knows the recipe full well.
Herzog’s “Belleville” brews up plenty of lurking fear in the current FSU/Asolo Conservatory production. But the playwright’s psychological suspense story only heats up after a slow burn. At first, it sounds like a love-happy rom-com.
Meet Zack (Peter Raimondo) and Abby (Zoya Martin). They’re two American expats in Paris and the honeymoon isn’t over yet for the young couple. He’s an idealistic doctor working with Medicines Sans Frontiers. She’s an actress who’s put her career on pause. They share a funky bohemian flat in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris’ Belleville. What could possibly go wrong?
Everything, as it turns out.
For starters, let’s just say: sex, lies, glinting knives, a stubbed toe, internet porn, mysterious phone calls, unpaid rent, gaslighting, vomiting, enough guilt to go around for everybody, a dead mother, a sister giving a difficult birth, culture shock, cultural superiority, masturbation, under-medication, self-medication and booze binges with a light sprinkling of white privilege.
Suffice to say, the romantic idyll starts to fray. And the ugly truth comes out.
Something is happening and you don’t know what it is. Neither does one of the innocent (and blissfully ignorant) American newlyweds. But you figure it out long before they do. In classic Hitchcockian style, that brings the suspense to a boil.
When the fearful truth is finally revealed to the innocent party, it’s nothing less than shattering. (Not wishing to shatter the surprise, I won’t reveal it here.)
Herzog’s excellent dialogue echoes the pauses and switchback rhythms of natural speech. She doesn’t elbow you in the ribs with obvious cues or clues. Director Jesse Jou follows her lead and keeps the suspense on a slow simmer.
The actors portraying the young couple do a fine job — a difficult job, considering that one of them is living a lie. Martin’s Abby is struggling with depression and a lack of direction, and she's taking out her frustrations on her husband. (Or so it seems.)
Raimondo’s Zack is an idealist who figures his good works entitle him to harmless dirty deeds. (Or so it seems.)
Jerald Wheat and Dreaa Kay Baudy briefly appear as the couple’s Senegalese landlord and his wife. (They are what they seem.) They’re compassionate and long-suffering, though their patience isn’t infinite.
April Carswell’s lived-in costumes and Jeffrey Weber’s shabby chic flat nicely evoke a young couple with sophisticated taste and a limited budget. Kudos also to Alex Pinchin’s unsettling sound design for dialing up the skin-crawling suspense.
Herzog’s mousetrap takes its time before it snaps. When it does, you feel it in your bones.
The shock goes beyond one character’s lies. Their entire life was a life. Their partner realizes their spouse was, in effect, a fictional character. And their dream of a happy life in Paris was just a dream. And a second-hand dream at that.
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