Your correspondent has spent a fair amount of time praising the works of MAP Theater, and with good reason: there’s a lot to like. Starting out at a one man operation, the company has grown to a tiny handful of people, all of which split the duties evenly. The company perpetually fundraises by hosting special events about town, they always raise just what they need to make their next production a reality. For that reason, they’re always able to produce plays well within their means, giving everything they mount an aesthetic that denotes passion for their projects. This is to say nothing of their pay-what-you-will ticket pricing model.
However, it’s not enough that their productions look and feel professional, what makes MAP Theater stand out is the quality of the scripts they present to the public. Bracing would be a word to describe it — not out and out alienating, but abrasive enough to engage the thinking theater goer. Their Soft Click of a Switch (dir. by Peggy Gannon*) featured at its center the relationship between two social outcasts before things turn graphically violent and abstract. The Art of Bad Men (dir. Kelly Kitchens*), their previous production, while straightforward in the telling, the story it conveyed was emotionally and thematically layered enough to make it a rewarding evening of theater. Which isn’t to say that every production connects — The Feast (dir. Aimée Bruneau*) for example, was a hyper-ambitious script the meaning of which was well hidden within its text; but the effort was well studied and presented, and in these theatrically tepid times, the effort counts for a hell of a lot. (*Note the welcome preponderance of women directors.)
So, it is with some chagrin that it has to be said that Amy Herzog’s Belleville, while presented with the exceeding care one is accustomed to from a MAP production, as a script, it represents something of a step down for the company. Admittedly, the script’s problems are not readily apparent upon first look; taken as part of the continuum of award winning plays coming out of New York in the last decade and a half, however, there’s a certain generational uniformity that is dispiriting to witness. I say generational because, to a one, the people in these plays possess the navel gazing tendency, along with the disaffected lack of will, of the Generation X-er. Worse, the audience is asked to follow along with these charming folk on their way to learn that, y’know, life sucks, bruh.
Annie Baker’s The Flick (produced by NCTC last year) has its lead characters going through some needlessly high emotional stakes so that the lead character can learn that casual racism in the workplace is sorta bad. We do not see whether the lesson actually sunk in, or if the lead character just decides to shrug it off, it’s all about those emotional stakes earlier in the proceedings. There’s a similar lack of thesis to the happenings of any given Stephen Adly Guirgis script (e.g. The Motherfucker with the Hat, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, In Arabia We’d All Be Kings, et.al., all with recent productions notable only for numerous artificially intense exchanges). The protagonist in Usman Ally’s The Invisible Hand (at ACT in 2014), after undergoing some visceral torture sequences live on stage, teaches us that greed and capitalism is a bad combination, but could still be used to escape from evil terrorists if done properly. Blank heroes risk little, sometimes someone gets hurt, the heroes change little, if anything, about their behaviors, lights go down. The repetitious mundanity of it all is offensive.
In this light, Herzog’s Belleville is at least idiosyncratic enough to stand out from the rest. Her protagonists possess enough charm to be able to be believably get by in the world, but are otherwise fairly unpleasant, ugly Americans living in Paris. Think of a less obnoxious (and thereby less engaging) Syd and Nancy. Abby (Kiki Abba) is more than a little needy, entitled, whiny and co-dependent; this is not Abba’s performance, the character itself is written this way. Her partner, Zack (Brandon Ryan), is seemingly more together as an individual — he’s the reason they’re abroad, as he’s convinced Abby that he’s working at Doctors Without Borders. At this point, be advised that if you wish to remain spoiler free, you’d do well to skip the next paragraph.
It’s soon revealed that Zack is an inveterate liar, one whose luck has run out some time before the play began. What separates Zack from the protagonists described above is that he’s too convinced of his limitations to attempt anything but what he knows to do, which, of course, places him further behind the eight ball. Gannon taps into the characters’ desire for self immolation and mines it for the gallows humor and atmosphere of a Leaving Las Vegas or Oslo 31. august. There is a certain amount of pathos and satisfaction to be gleaned from watching this particular house of cards fall apart. In scene after scene, Zack dances less successfully out of the trouble he’s placed himself in and then Abby ends up paying for it in some way or another. After the fourth iteration of this, one has to wonder what the reason is for this. Suffice it to say that we learn that honesty is a good thing to have in a relationship.
If all this sounds like a capricious dismissal, understand that it is not due to the work given to us by the company. The performances are solid across the board, with Ryan providing his most refined performance to date. His performance as Zack skates the thin line between the desire to do good and the conviction he simply can’t with a deftness that would be hard to find anywhere else. The designs are also exemplars of attention to detail. To be clear, these efforts make the evening a net positive, and the company should be commended for this.
It is simply that all this work, both here and in the productions named above, is in the service of safe, predictable stories about often affluent losers who believe they are unable to change, so they don’t even try. Yes, sometimes they suffer, or they lose a friend, or are scared by the bad men, but why on earth should anyone care?