Chicago Theatre Review
Americans in Paris
Abby and Zack, the 20-something American couple at the center of Amy Herzog’s play, appear to have a good marriage, but something isn’t right. Seeing is not believing and, as the audience will slowly discover, nothing could be further from the truth. Abby’s an actress-turned-Yoga instructor who has always wanted to live in Paris, or so Zach believes. Her husband is a medical graduate working for the French Doctors Without Borders, or so his wife thinks. That’s only part of the deception as this psychological thriller slowly scrapes away the glossiness of love and hope. Information these young expats share with one other may or may not be true. Like peeling an onion, their story is slowly revealed, both to the audience as well as to each other. Information we (and they) accept as truths eventually prove to be lies. And thus what begins as a look at a reasonably happy, well-balanced marriage gradually erodes into a gripping tale of mounting horror.
Set in the less-than-fashionable Parisian neighborhood of Belleville, Herzog drops hints of unhappiness and contradictions evident within their idyllic lives, but to say any more is to deprive audiences of the play’s impact. Slowly we learn more about Zack and Abby as they make their own discoveries about each other. Tensions build, stressful, uncomfortable situations occur and lies are told. Then the knife appears. By the final curtain, and for hours after they leave the theatre, audiences will no doubt recall the many clues that foreshadowed the play’s climax; however no one will predict this ending.
Kate Arrington and Cliff Chamberlain are perfectly cast as Abby and Zack. They deliver Ms. Herzog’s realistic dialogue naturally, creating a true slice of life. Ms. Arrington’s Abby is sweet and laid-back, which is understandable when we learn that she’s been addicted to anti-depressants following her mother’s death. She’s also addicted to her cell phone, especially for keeping in touch with her stateside father. And Abby often becomes annoyingly whiny, particularly when alcohol’s involved, and we wonder how Zack puts up with her. Chamberlain’s Zack is the easy-going, cool frat guy, who’s everyone’s friend. He’s the go-to guy when it comes to solving simple problems and he can make the best of any unpleasant situation. Both actors keep it straightforward and looking easy, mainly because director Anne Kauffman (who has directed earlier productions of this play out East) has encouraged them to live their roles. There’s no “acting” in sight, which is a blessing. Both cast and director obviously trust in Herzog’s writing, as well they should.
James Schuette’s beautifully designed one-bedroom apartment is exactly what one would expect to find in this Parisian neighborhood. Dominated by floor-to-ceiling French doors that look out above the street, the sparsely-furnished flat is convincingly real. Together with Matt Frey’s minutely detailed lighting (notice how real the lights from the emergency vehicle seem as it passes) and Richard Woodbury’s moody original music and sound design, their technical support seems to create another important character. Shadows, silhouettes seen through a frosted glass window, the sound of locks turning, footsteps on the stairs and bathwater running all become ominous warnings that tragedy may occur.
This thrilling piece of theatre will at first gently take hold of audiences while gradually squeezing them breathless throughout the next 75-minutes. As the playwright has written: “I had this primal fear that people are so unknowable. In all relationships there are lies that are allowed to exist.” It’s this mystery that will keep audiences glued to the edge of their seats until the final curtain.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 27-August 25 by Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other Chicago area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.