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Article updated: 7/12/2013 6:03 PM

A marriage unravels in Steppenwolf's 'Belleville'

By Barbara Vitello

Almost from the beginning of "Belleville," Amy Herzog's domestic drama in its Chicago area premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre, stress fractures are apparent in the relationship between Abby and Zack.

That there are secrets between them is evident early on, when Abby (Kate Arrington) returns to the couple's apartment on a mid-December afternoon to find her husband Zack (Cliff Chamberlain) watching Internet porn when he should be at work. It's the first of several disturbing secrets revealed over the course of this taut, sometimes unnerving and ultimately chilly examination of a marriage unraveling.

Director Anne Kauffman, who also helmed "Belleville's" 2011 world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre and its off-Broadway transfer, injects a subtle sense of unease into this well-acted tale.

Americans Abby and Zack are 28-year-old former college sweethearts now married and living in a rooftop apartment (designed by James Schuette) in Paris' multiethnic Belleville district with enormous French doors that open onto a small balcony and a kind of shabby, Bohemian chic decor.

Zack works with Doctors Without Borders to eradicate pediatric AIDS. Abby, once an aspiring actress, teaches yoga.

"To be an actor, you have to love to suffer. I only like to suffer," she says by way of explanation.

Abby, who has suffered from depression since her mother's death five years earlier, has stopped taking her antidepressants. Instead, she self-medicates with Valium and alcohol. Aware of his wife's relapse, Zack self-medicates with marijuana, which he shares with Alioune (Chris Boykin), their French-Sengelese landlord who lives downstairs with his wife Amina (Alana Arenas) and their two young children.

Alioune shows up to confront Zack about the rent which -- unbeknown to Abby -- he has not paid in months. Alioune's threat to evict the couple if they don't pay sends Zack into a frenzied search -- not for cash but for any errant weed he's squirreled away in the apartment.

The canny Herzog drops clues as to just how damaged these people are, individually and as a couple. Still grieving over her mother, Abby spends hours on the phone with her father, inquiring after her sister who's about to give birth. She also takes numerous baths, a habit that irks Alioune, who pays for the hot water. Meanwhile, Zack deflects questions about work and blames their inability to return to the U.S. for the holidays on visa problems.

The apartment is untidy. A haphazardly tied curtain hangs from the window. There are newspapers on the floor and no clean utensils in the kitchen. Abby drops her winter coat on the floor -- and there it stays. Zack strips off his socks and tosses them in the direction of the bedroom, where they sit until someone else picks them up.

Their behavior, the drug and alcohol use in particular, suggests depression. It's a valid explanation seeing as neither recognizes the other's precarious emotional state. Or if they do, they lack the ability and the will to do anything about it.

So they remain disappointed, deluded, in denial.

Yet Herzog hints at other reasons -- immaturity for one, and an ignorance of real-life demands, something the hardworking Alioune and Amina well know. Plus, there's a creeping sense of entitlement which Alioune observes makes them believe they "can do whatever they want" and leave someone else to clean up the mess. Literally.

Arrington and Chamberlain convey, with the most fleeting of looks. the unease that underpins their relationship. That unease builds as their situation becomes increasingly chaotic, exemplified in part by a drunken Abby's misguided attempt to remove a dead toenail using a butcher knife.

Theirs are deftly shaded performances. The enigmatic Chamberlain keeps us guessing as to the real Zack. Is he an overwhelmed husband or something more sinister? Like Chamberlain, the ever-authentic Arrington shows us a character straining at the seams. We want to shake her. We want to shield her. More than anything, we want her to grow up.

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