The trope of the loud, ignorant, culturally arrogant American expatriate has been leveraged artistically for as long as overseas travel has been possible. Think of the Griswold family in "National Lampoon's European Vacation," or to a less obvious degree, Kathy Bates' boisterous rendering of Molly Brown in the iconic 1990s film "Titanic."
The planet has witnessed the domination of U.S. foreign policy and wealth, a sort of Yankee swagger typified by former President George W. Bush's boorish descent onto the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003, for above a century. And we haven't exactly been subtle about it, handing artists, musicians and playwrights a useful convention: the duck out of water who seems doubtless of its right to be there, expecting his or her new environment and neighbors to adapt to its presence, rather than trouble itself to assimilate.
The accuracy of this trope can, and always has been, debated. And I suspect that Steppenwolf Theatre Company's season-concluding, Chicago-premiere production of "Belleville" will animate more than a few discussions across Windy City salons.
Written by Amy Herzog and directed by Anne Kauffman, who has shepherded the play across its 2011 world premiere, as well as an Off-Broadway run earlier this season, "Belleville" is work of darkness set against the backdrop of the City of Lights.
Newlyweds Zack (Cliff Chamberlain) and Abby (Kate Arrington), denizens of the trendy, titular Parisian neighborhood, are still trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up. This process is punctuated by constant internal and interpersonal warfare, set against the achingly poetic sights and sounds of modern France.
One of these two, the audience is quickly informed, seems to be adapting better than the other. The lighthearted Zack is fluent in the native tongue, employed full-time as a medical researcher and quick to befriend the couple's Senegalese landlord, Alioune (Chris Boykin).
By contrast, Abby is depressed, neurotic and paranoid, isolated by her refusal to immerse in the local language and culture, fearful of the perceptions of others. At the opening of the play, Abby's tragic flaw appears to be the irony of hyper awareness. She lacks the insight to recognize that her fearful standoffishness yields the impression of aloof superiority, only reinforcing her solitude.
Happily, "Belleville" has more to say. Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey assesses the plot's duality in press materials. She observes, "The play is asking us to keep two things in view: the nature of the relationship between Zack and Abby, and the difference between the two couples in the play...The deeply psychological inquiry into the relationship of Abby and Zack opens up into a cultural question. How is it that Americans comport themselves on the world stage? Is there, finally, a difference in our sense of maturity and responsibility?"
This critic would argue that the dishonest, superficial relationship between the two leads is in service of Lavey's latter rhetorical questions. When the duplicitous, troubled union of the Americans is set in relief against that of Alouine and his wife Amina (Alana Arenas), the audience is left with the inescapable impression that this sort of marital unraveling could only be "made in the U.S.A."
It's no accident that that the ages and responsibility levels of the two couples is repeatedly contrasted. Zack and Abby, in their late 20s, appear to be miles away from the conventional trappings of adulthood. Childless, Zack is prone to indolent afternoons spent pleasuring himself while Abby, employed part-time as a yoga instructor, devotes full-time hours to gazing at her own navel and pining for her Stateside family.
Compare this state of affairs with those of the younger Alouine and Amina. Both 25, the duo is raising two young children while administering a thriving property management business. Do the grounding influences of commitment and responsibility lead to strength of character? "Belleville" certainly makes the case.
Part relationship drama, part psychological thriller, to say much more of the plot development would be to deprive prospective audiences of the element of surprise. With solid performances from all four leads as well as amazing sight and sound work from James Schuette (Scenic Design), Matt Frey (Lighting Design) and Richard Woodbury (Sound), you'll never doubt the devolution of Abby and Zack's dynamic or the deceptively placid setting.
And yet, two days after the premiere, I can't shake the impression that there are some key things missing from the final, solid product. One of these elements, curiously enough? Subtitles. Given the elaborate production values, I'd like to understand Herzog's rationale for omitting a screen to transmit the final dialogue between Alouine and Amina.
Having taken five years of French lessons as a high school student, I had a basic grasp of this important exchange, but devoted ample time to explaining the discourse to my confused companion as we exited the theater. Again I would argue that the disparate dynamics between the espoused pairs is critical to assessing the root causes of Abby and Zack's dysfunction, and yet the audience is curiously deprived of the required tools.
Does the assumption that theatergoers will muddle through render Herzog as guilty of cultural elitism as Abby, the character we are led to reject?
With a running time of 100-minutes with no intermission, audience members will want to make sure they take their seats with empty bladders. And with rough language, violence and nudity, this production is decidedly adults-only.
"Belleville" runs through Aug. 25 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, IL. For info or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theatre website.