Friday, January 13, 2017


Amy Herzog

Justin Gillman & Alisha Ehrlich
Sometimes -- even often times -- there appears to be such an alignment of the stars that everything in a live, theatrical production comes together to create a magical evening not soon to be forgotten: script, direction, actors, creative team.  Other times -- fortunately not too often -- one or more of those key elements is so out of synch with the others that upon leaving the theatre, one can only scratch one’s head and wonder, “Why?” 

Even with one of the hottest, new playwrights (Amy Herzog: 4000 Miles, Great God Plan), a locally esteemed and proven director (M. Graham Smith), and a veteran cast with impressive performance credits in their resumé, the universe is all out of whack and the stars non-aligned for the usually hit-producing Custom Made Theatre Company and its current offering of Ms. Herzog’s Belleville.  The pace of conversation and action between the main characters is painfully slow with such over-use of pregnant pauses that one almost wants to say out loud, “Just say/do something.”  At other times, the back-and-forth chatter of the script is so uninteresting that it is easy to lose focus as an audience member and either doze a bit or start thinking of tomorrow’s to-do list.  There are certainly moments of surprise (not all very pleasant when blood and vomit and toenail extraction are involved), lies between spouses to be discovered, and twists in plot that cause some suspense and tension; but there is also a lot of down time and mundane dialogue to be endured in the ninety minutes of the play that make the total time spent in the theatre seem twice that long.

Abby and Justin are an American, newly wed couple who find themselves in an ethnically diverse section of Paris where he, as a recent medical school graduate (although he for some reason skipped graduation), is working on important pediatric, AIDS research.  She, on the other hand, appears from the beginning to be out of sorts and quite unhappy with her lot as a yoga instructor and doctor’s wife, even though it was supposedly her suggestion to come to Paris. 

Justin Gillman & Nick Sweeney
Quickly to appear are increasing signs that all is not right among the newly weds and their Parisian set-up.  Abby catches Zack at home (when he should be at work) with his pants down in front of a computer screen.  Zack admits to their Senegalese landlord, Alioune, (while the two share a toke) that Abby has gotten off her anti-depressant/anti-anxiety regimen even though “that shit was worth its weight in gold.”  Alioune reminds his friend Zack (between hits of pot) that Zack and Abby are four months past due on their rent and must pay in two days or move out.  Abby offers the Muslim-practicing Alioune angel-shaped, Christmas cookies while frantically apologizing with a bizarre smile frozen on her face.  Zack, M.D., frantically searches for more weed every time he is left alone and almost gets himself arrested in one desperate, mid-night ploy to secure another high. 

And then there is this large kitchen knife that keeps on showing up in the oddest moments, accompanied by wide-eyed looks of dread by all those present.

Certainly, there are many elements introduced to lure one to lean forward in the seat to wonder where these clues are leading.  Hints of a Hitchcock-like, psychological thriller hang in the air.  But every time the suspense builds to a potentially exciting breaking point, the ensuing script’s dialogue and play’s direction usually burst the bubble, leaving the audience to suffer through subsequent minutes of not much happening.  

Many of the play’s best lines and moments are awarded to Abby, well-played by nervous, jumpy, hand-wringing (but always smiling) Alisha Ehrlich.  “I am so tired of the fucking pressure to be happy,” Abby admits as happiness (or not) as a person and as a married couple is a topic that comes up time and again for both her and Zack.  “I can still have all the trappings of a person I hate and still be a person I like, right?” she asks at one point.  It is at moments like both of these that it appears the play is finally going to dig deep and challenge us to think about our own definitions (and maybe those imposed on us by others) and pursuits of happiness and well-being.  But too often these rich lines just fall flat when the dialog peters out or turns into more humdrum banter between the spouses.  But through it all, Ms. Ehrlich continues to offer quirky nuance of manner and intriguing facial expressions that speak volumes beyond the words she is given – all enough to warrant note of her performance.

As Zack, Justin Gillman is a doctor who clearly has ever more secrets and sources of his own depression than we imagine in the beginning.  There is something uneasy in his cool, matter-of-fact manner that gives way to something rather frightening in his panicked searches for weed.  What is unclear in Mr. Gillman’s interpretation (and the script/direction he is given) are his motives for the lies he in fact lives and his real intentions about the increasingly parental, control-oriented relationship he has with Abby. 

Nick Sweeney, Nkechi Emeruwak & Justin Gillman
Rounding out the cast and serving as the more mature, adult counterparts to their American tenants are Nick Sweeny as Alioune and Nkechi Emeruwak as Amina, a married couple with two kids.  The two are strikingly different in almost every respect from the more hyper, always changing-in-mood couple renting their flat.  Tall; dignified; and overall calm and sedate in voice, expression, and movement, the two actually have little time on the stage (especially Amina) until the very end of the play.  Speaking to each other in French, their sole presence for the play’s climax is frustrating since (for most of us who know only a word or two of that language), we have no idea what they are actually saying in order to bring the play to a close. 

Carlos Aceves has created a credible set that denotes a newly wed apartment where money is scarce in a foreign land.  Angled walls, more doors than one might expect, and scenes that occur behind those doors enhance the feeling something is askew in the story unfolding before us.  Ryan Lee Short reminds us of the urban, immigrant-heavy neighborhood through his sound design and effects.  Maxx Kurzunski’s lighting and shadows add to the sense of unease and tension.

At one point, Abby blurts out to Zack, “How impossible it is to love you when you lack any actual core.”  Unfortunately, that is too close to my reaction to Amy Herzog’s Belleville, especially in the way directed in this Custom Made Theatre production.  I am sure there is more ‘there’ than I happened to see and feel the night I attended; but the play’s core message, the core reason ‘why’ is not compelling enough for me to come any where near loving this play as I have loved her other ones or other, recent Custom Made productions.

Rating: 2 E

Belleville continues through January 28, 2017 at Custom Made Theatre Company, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 415-789-2682 (CMTC).

Photo Credits: Jay Yamada

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