Kate Arrington and Cliff Chamberlain
Kate Arrington and Cliff Chamberlain Credit: Michael Brosilow

You think you know your significant other, don’t you? Well, hah! I say. There’s a reason we call them “other.” Everybody’s got secrets, and some are whoppers. Even if you marry for love, you marry a stranger.

The idea that our most intimate friends may turn out to be our worst enemies has spawned some classic yarns. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, shy, trusting Joan Fontaine finds reasons to worry that the devil-may-care gambler she married is a murderer. In Orson Welles’s The Stranger, shy, trusting Loretta Young has to confront the possibility that her professorial husband is a fugitive Nazi war criminal. And, most famously, in the 1944 movie version of Patrick Hamilton’s play Gas Light (aka Angel Street), Ingrid Bergman—also shy and trusting, if a tad high-strung—is psychologically manipulated by the charming but very bad man she took for better and for worse.

Belleville is very much in the mode. Running now at Steppenwolf Theatre, Amy Herzog‘s 2011 drama gives us the passion of Abby and Zack, a twentysomething American couple renting an apartment in the funky-cool title neighborhood of Paris. She’s a would-be actress currently teaching yoga; he’s fresh out of med school, fluent in French, and working a dream job that Abby describes, with appropriate oral italics, as “doing research to prevent children from contracting AIDS.” The elements all point to a fabulous adventure—two kids saving the world in the world’s most superb city. But, of course, the elements lie.

We know something is wrong from the first moments of the play, when Abby comes home earlier than expected, her yoga class having been canceled, to find Zack in the bedroom, watching online porn. More telling, perhaps, than his taking a whole afternoon off to masturbate is the terrible scream Abby utters when she walks in on him, though sound leakage from the sex video should’ve given her a pretty good sense of what she’d find. Doesn’t she recognize her own husband? Evidently not.

One problem with Belleville is precisely that we know something is wrong so early on—i.e., well before Herzog seems ready to acknowledge it. She plays by the familiar rules of the form, gamely dropping hints designed to ramp up our unease, even to the extent of placing a great, big, glittering kitchen knife in easy reach. But Anne Kauffman’s staging tends to make us aware of the hints without actually making us tense about them. The show sometimes suggests an academic exercise: Can this genre be revived? As an audience member, I hope the answer is yes—the intimate-enemy conceit is just too juicy to abandon, especially in times like these, when social media have rendered our identities so fungible. The desire for mystery is undermined here, however, by an acute awareness of mystery’s mechanics. That may be one reason why some of Belleville‘s middle scenes tend to drag: once we know we’ve been set up, much of what goes on between Zack and Abby feels like stalling.

Still, Herzog is a canny storyteller, and she supplies powerful compensations for the weak bits, especially in her treatment of the main characters. Abby is neither shy nor as trusting as her fictional forebears in Suspicion, Gas Light, and The Stranger; she’s a career neurotic with her whole life invested in keeping a doctor on 24-hour conjugal call. And Zack is no slithery con man moving in for the kill, but a weak boy who wants nothing more urgently than to be thought well of. It’s narcissism as much as anything that moves them toward disaster. They’re both victims of overencouragement—the disease of affluent young Americans whose sense of themselves is so disproportionately grand that it finally incapacitates them. As Abby says in a rare moment of insight, “I’m wishing I felt less disdainful of everyone else and expected a little less from myself.”

Just so we won’t miss the point, Herzog contrasts Abby and Zack with Amina and Alouine, the young Senegalese couple who manage the apartment building they live in. Reserved where Abby and Zack are emotionally sloppy, industrious where they’re destructive, modest where they’re profligate, mutually respectful where the Americans must constantly renegotiate the terms of their relationship, Amina and Alouine are clearly literary constructs. Yet—together with Herzog’s spare, cunning dialogue—performances by Alana Arenas and Chris Boykin render them compelling.

Kate Arrington and Cliff Chamberlain have a much harder row to hoe in getting us to care about Abby and Zack. They succeed mightily, though, by deploying a kind of theatrical equivalent of tough love. Arrington and Chamberlain are so unsparing in their depiction of Abby and Zack that the couple’s shared delusion takes on an almost tragic quality. They’re utterly defenseless against themselves.