Some of the scariest moments in theater and in life can arise from seemingly predictable, every-day situations. There's something about a placid façade hiding a terrifying secret that is more blood-curdling than a spooky haunted house at night.
This is the effect that playwright Amy Herzog is after in Belleville, now at Dobama Theatre. And there certainly are a couple chilling moments. But due to a lot of loose ends in the script and excessively languorous pauses in the performance, the show oozes to a rather limp conclusion.
A young couple is living in the eponymous Paris neighborhood, as husband and doctor Zack pursues his career by working with the Doctors Without Borders program. Meanwhile, his wife Abby is teaching yoga classes and communicating via cell phone with folks back in the States. Nothing could seem more normal on the surface.
But when Abby comes home early from her yoga class and finds her hubby jacking off to Internet porn in the bedroom, she screams and is terribly shaken. Setting aside this rather brittle Victorian reaction to self-pleasuring (an adult masturbating? Heaven forfend; bring me my scented handkerchiefs and fainting couch!), Abby is confused by Zack's mid-day reverie when he's supposed to be on the job.
Abby has her own issues, since she's taking antidepressants and is continually about to call home or just finishing a call home to her dad and her pregnant sister. Herzog explains none of this, leaving it to the audience to assign causes and motivations as they will.
Of course, things deteriorate even further as Zack and Abby find out they know each other even less than they expected and find themselves locked into mutually assured marital destruction.
The other couple in this four-hander is composed of the husband-and-wife landlord couple. The Senegalese fellow, Alioune, seems affable enough as he shares some pot with Zack. But an undercurrent of tension arises when Alouine begins to insist that Zack pay up four months back rent for the apartment.
And when Aloune's no-nonsense wife Amina shows up, the contrast between the two couples of similar ages — one couple self-possessed but challenged, the other fragmented and secretive — is made clear.
Playwright Amy Herzog is an accomplished crafter of dialogue, as was shown last year in Dobama's production of 4000 Miles. But here, the sly and subtle revelations that are meant to slowly ratchet up the tension feel more like trivialities.
It's not that a young couple can't have secrets from each other. Most, in fact, do. It's that, for a young couple, the stakes are not yet that high. They are at the beginning of their lives, and if you find out your spouse is lying about his job, or a neurotic scatterbrain with a mean streak, or (gasp!) an onanist, you can pretty easily change directions and get on with your lives.
That fact is ignored in this piece and the secrets and revelations play out into a muddled and too-easy denouement, with the last scene coda delivered, for purposes of clarity, in French by Alouine and Amina. Sacre bleu.
The four Dobama actors work diligently to keep this fragile 110-minute one-act airborne. Llewie Nunez exhibits an initial endearing goofiness as Abby while Matt O'Shea seems inoffensive enough until he takes on much darker tones. But their chemistry together never seems off-center in the right way, as it's hard to see what brought them together in the first place.
Robert Hunter is solid if not particularly interesting as Alouine. But in her short appearances, Carly Germany makes Amina the most compelling person in the show. If only the play had taken place in their flat instead of Zack and Abby's.
Corey Atkins, an intelligent and perceptive director, here falls victim to a desire to make the play's silences slowly turn the screw on the tension. Trouble is, there are so many lingering pauses, between and among too many not-so-significant events, that the anxiety and pressure dissipate by the time things turn ugly.
Through October 5 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Rd., Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396, dobama.org.