The idea of an American in Paris is so familiar it’s the title of a Hollywood musical. Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady through to Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris all deal with the consequences of the New World rubbing rather awkwardly up against the Old. Amy Herzog, reworking a play she attempted years before, manages to inject fresh insight into this rich theme with her play Belleville, playing now at Red Stitch.
Zack [Paul Ashcroft] and Abby [Christina O’Neill] are living in the Parisian suburb of Belleville, if not quite at home then at least coping with life abroad. He works for Medicins Sans Frontier, despite long absences from the office, and she stays at home and frets. Her sister is having a baby back in the States, and vague complications with their visas prevent them returning to witness the birth.
When landlord Alioune [Renaud Momtbrun] enters, pressing for rent but also itching to smoke dope with Zack, one of the play’s key themes emerges. Herzog is clearly interested in power relations between Americans and the rest of the world, and extracts a great deal of humour and tension from the scenario. Abby and Alioune have a strained conversation while Zack is in the shower, and cultural assumptions abound. Abby’s ignorance of Islam and her cavalier approach to learning French speak to her sense of entitlement, and Alioune’s status as landlord is subtly undermined.
Zack proves to be no better, using his friendship with Alioune as leverage over months of unpaid rent, one of a number of alarming predicaments he keeps from Abby. Ashcroft is excellent as the twitchy Zack, constantly shifting gear as he tries to negotiate his web of lies, seesawing dangerously from bonhomie to barely concealed malice.
When Alioune’s wife Amina [Tariro Mavonda] enters, not even trying to mask her contempt of the boorish American tenants, relations between the two couples reach a volatile pitch. Herzog juggles the tension beautifully, and even the melodrama at the end feels credible rather than silly. Zack’s final act of desperation is problematic in some ways, incongruous and slightly adrift of the themes Herzog has been working, but is moving nonetheless.
The real problem is the playwright’s handling of Alioune and Amina. For a play that examines casual racism with nuance and complexity, it is unfortunate that Herzog gives the African–French characters such a facile, supporting role in the proceedings. They aren’t caricatures, by any means, but they also aren’t fully realised. It undermines the point of the play somewhat, and leaves a slightly bitter aftertaste of cultural insensitivity.
The production itself it excellent, with nary a false note. The performances are, as always with Red Stitch, superb. Mavonda is quietly effective as the weary Amina, and Momtbrun is lovely as the compromised Alioune. O’Neill is emerging as a veritable star, so consummately does she navigate the shifting extremes of Abby’s character. Ashcroft is a perfect foil, and together they make for a compelling and devastating couple.
Denny Lawrence’s direction is unobtrusively brilliant, attuned to the sometimes violent alterations of mood and tone, expertly avoiding the pitfalls in the script. The set [Jacob Battista] and lighting [Clare Springett] don’t get in the way, and come into their own in the penultimate scene.
There is a really sophisticated and painful self-examination at the heart of this play. The lost Americans in Paris represent something profoundly broken about the West, but the detached counterpoint of the French couple offers no bulwark. They provide little warmth and virtually no redemption, suggesting a hopeless failure of trust in human relations. If it sounds bleak, it is. It’s also utterly engaging, and deserves to be seen.
Director: Denny Lawrence Featuring: Paul Ashcroft, Christina O’Neill, Tariro Mavondo & Renaud Momtbrun Set Design: Jacob Battista Lighting Design: Clare Springett Sound Design: Chris Wenn
Red Stitch Theatre, Rear 2 Chapel Street, East St. Kilda
Season continues to 31 May 2014
Bookings: (03) 9533 8083 or online at: www.redstitch.net
For more information, visit: www.redstitch.net for details.
Image: Paul Ashcroft and Christina O’Neill – photo by Jodie Hutchinson
Review: Tim Byrne