Marital secrets

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday January 18, 2017
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Alisha Ehrlich and Justin Gillman play a couple whose<br>marriage is based on falsehoods gradually revealed in Amy Herzog's <i>Belleville</i><br> at Custom Made Theatre. Photo: Jay Yamada
Alisha Ehrlich and Justin Gillman play a couple whose
marriage is based on falsehoods gradually revealed in Amy Herzog's Belleville
at Custom Made Theatre. Photo: Jay Yamada

If misery loves company so much, why doesn't it just marry it? Well, sometimes it does, but the spouses may not realize at first that this is their bond. In Amy Herzog's Belleville, troubles in paradise begin to show in the first scene as Abby walks in on her husband while he is having an intimate pants-down interlude with the computer. Not so shocking anymore, that, but it does give her pause. "You're having a slightly Victorian reaction," says Zack, flipping any fault to her, as begins an ominous unraveling of secrets and mysteries that becomes increasingly complex before reaching a too-pat resolution.

But at least until that point, Custom Made Theatre's production holds us tight during its 90 minutes, as a couple is forced to acknowledge that their marriage has been held together with spit and glue. As long as self-deceptions remain sequestered, Abby and Zack might just have it all. Her dream of living in Paris has come true, thanks to Zack's work with Doctors Without Borders. But every compliment now seems to be taken as a passive-aggressive jape, every deviation from the routine a red flag of some sort.

Custom Made has given Herzog's play a quality staging, with a quartet of strong performances under M. Graham Smith's moody direction. As Abby, Alisha Ehrlich hardly need open her mouth to communicate a woman in need " but of what, remains elusive both for her and for her husband. "I'm so fucking tired of being told to be happy," she says. Yet Zack seems to be making an effort, having even skipped the graduation ceremony from medical school so he could take a job in Paris, but in Justin Gillman's performance, there is a queasy sort of deferentiality that proves prescient.

Zack and Abby live in Belleville, a multi-ethnic neighborhood in Paris, and their landlord emigrated from Senegal and lives downstairs with his wife (nicely played by Nkechi Emweuwa). Zack and Alioune are pot-smoking buddies, but Abby always seems to be tripping over her efforts to establish her embrace of diversity. She nearly has a meltdown after offering the nonplussed Alioune angel-shaped Christmas cookies after remembering he is Muslim. Nick Sweeney plays Alioune with a quiet intensity, and only reluctantly insists that Zack pay his months-in-arrears rent, of which Abby knows nothing. Tugging at that thread begins a marriage's unraveling.

What helps set Belleville apart from a typical relationship drama is the mystery-play structure, as secrets are gradually pried out, with an increasing sense of dread as tensions rise. If the specifics can't be known before the end comes, it's not hard to have anticipated something along its lines, and it feels too easy. There is then a low-key coda of unclear intentions that requires you to know at least one French phrase: "Je suis desole."


Belleville will run through Jan. 28 at Custom Made Theatre. Tickets are $20-$42. Call (415) 798-2672 or go to