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‘Belleville’ a disturbing (and funny) look at modern living

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Justin Gillman and Alisha Erhlich are excellent in Custom Made Theatre’s “Belleville.” (Courtesy Jay Yamada)
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The minute the lights go up on playwright Amy Herzog’s “Belleville” at Custom Made Theatre Co., there’s an intriguing what’s-wrong-with-this-picture atmosphere.

Abby (a vulnerable, utterly believable Alisha Ehrlich), looking mightily teed off, enters her apartment in the ethnically mixed, downscale Belleville section of Paris, flings her yoga mat and jacket on the floor and collapses on the couch. Something is indeed seriously wrong, but she doesn’t know the half of it yet, nor do we.

Alerted by a sound, she crosses to peek into the bedroom (good use, by scenic designer Carlos Aceves, of the stage’s shallow, wide dimensions) and catches her husband, Zack, whom she assumed to be at work, in the midst of a private, solitary act.

For his part, Zack (a wonderfully nerdy, eager-to-please Justin Gillman) stumbles, in pulling up his pants, mortified.

That’s just the beginning of the awkward interactions, and the serious problems — soon enough to be revealed — that plague this pair of expats, who affectionately call each other “homie” but are constantly miscommunicating, hoarding secrets and operating at cross purposes.

Abby, an emotional wreck who’s currently attempting to let go of her dependence on anti-depressants, presumes they’re living in Paris because Zack, a med school graduate, has a research job here.

Zack, a pothead, thinks she wanted desperately to live in Paris and is trying to fulfill her wishes.

But, “I am not happy — it’s not my mode of being,” she reminds him.

Both are eager to ingratiate themselves with Alioune and Amina, the Muslim, African-French property manager couple next door (Nick Sweeney and Nkechi Emeruwak, both terrific), who are becoming strangely cold toward these friendly white Americans. Abby doesn’t know what’s going on; Zack knows all too well.

This taut psychological thriller of sorts, inspired by a true-life newspaper story, is a carefully calibrated examination of a modern marriage that’s inexorably devolving. (It’s quite different tonally–and more interesting–than Herzog’s gentler, Obie-winning “4000 Miles,” seen in an American Conservatory Theater production a few years ago.)

Finely tuned by director M. Graham Smith and beautifully performed by Custom Made’s excellent quartet, it’s both funny and disturbing.

An almost whispered final scene in French dialogue is particularly poignant, proof not only of the unerring instincts of Smith and his actors but of Herzog’s sure hand. Good endings are rare.


REVIEW

Belleville
Presented by Custom Made Theatre Co.
Where: 533 Sutter St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, closes Jan. 28
Tickets: $25 to $60
Contact: (415) 798-2682, www.custommade.org

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