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Review - Belleville & The Revisionist

As a public service for playgoers who do not understand French, nothing of any importance takes place in the final scene of Amy Herzog's Belleville.

Don't worry, it's not a spoiler to say that the actions that end the next to last scene pretty much complete the play and that the final pages, spoken entirely in French, do nothing but leave those of us who only know English wondering what the hell they missed. (For the record, I cut and pasted the scene from my press script onto one of those web sites that performs translations.)

Perhaps I'll never be satisfied with the way Ms. Herzog chooses to end her plays, but like her After The Revolution and The Great God Pan, she has a terrific way with dialogue that both entertains and stings and characters and situations that are at least initially grabbing. Director Anne Kauffman and an excellent cast greatly contribute to keeping attentions fixed, despite a couple of lapses in believability and a dearth of content to sufficiently fill the play's 95 minutes.

The Belleville section of Paris fills in for Park Slope, Brooklyn (The Seine, the Gowanus... What's the dif?) as represented by the attic apartment (fine work by Julia C. Lee) rented by twentysomething American couple, Zack and Abby (Greg Keller and Maria Dizzia). The first thing we learn about their marriage is that Abby has been holding back any physical intimacy since going off her anti-depressants. It goes downhill from there.

After drawing the audience in with some amusing observations about the irony of an Eiffel Tower onesie and Abby's failure at her chosen career ("To be an actress you have to love to suffer and I only like to suffer.") the playwright spends the rest of the evening hinting at, and eventually revealing in tiny morsels, the many issues involving these two arrested adolescents, including addiction, deception, finances and commitment. Eventually, things start getting seriously dangerous. Keller and Dizzia do a great job of initially coming off as a cute, if somewhat quirky, couple and slowly blending into the transitions that reveal the darker sides of their marriage.

Serving as a representation of maturity is Phillip James Brannon as their landlord, Alioune, who Abby is shocked to discover - since he's happily married with two children and a successful business - is only 25. In the relatively small role of his wife, Amina, Pascale Armand has little more to do than to appear pissed off, which she does nicely.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Maria Dizzia and Greg Keller; Bottom: Pascale Armand and Phillip James Brannon.

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If actor/playwright Jesse Eisenberg isn't going to bother much with projecting his lines loud enough to reach row M of the cozy and acoustically fine Cherry Lane Theatre, then I'm not going to bother much with reviewing them.

To be fair, I checked with others and the hearing problem wasn't just mine, and to be doubly fair - since his voice projection skills have nothing to do with his playwriting - I did review a copy of the script before concluding that The Revisionist, though given a fine production by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and director Kip Fagan, is far too familiar and unpolished to engage, though the presence of Vanessa Redgrave will undoubtedly fill the 179-seat playhouse.

Eisenberg plays rude, obnoxious bad-boy writer David suffering a block while trying to revise his sophomore effort. He decides to get some undistracted work time by traveling to Poland to stay with his second cousin, Maria (Redgrave), whom he's never met. Why Poland? Why Maria? Why do they bond over a vodka-soused recitation of "Who's On First?" I don't know.

The overly patient and generous Maria puts up with David's spoiled nonsense because she is longing to release to some relation a family secret from her childhood during the German occupation. (Who's The Revisionist now?) Providing breaks from their implausible scenes are nice moments between Maria and a gregarious cab driver pal, played by Daniel Oreskes.

Photo of Vanessa Redgrave and Jesse Eisenberg by Sandra Coudert.

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The woman who went by the pseudonym Natalie Dylan, a self-described feminist with a B.A. in women's studies, hasn't been the only one to attempt to put her virginity up for auction, but being attractive, American and willing to appear on national television to explain how she wished to use the money to pay for her further education most likely helped her become the best-known in this country.

In these days where government legislation of morality and a woman's right to control her own body stirs up controversy, Dylan's story is still extraordinarily relevant. Playwright/performer Miranda Huba took from it her inspiration to create Candy Tastes Nice, a fictional solo piece about a woman wishing to pay off her student loans by holding such an auction.

Directed by Shannon Sindelar, the play was previously performed in New York in a traditional theatre setting, but this new production is placed in the upstairs lounge of the bordello-themed bar, Madame X, with customers welcome to bring their drinks into the playing space (no minimum) where they sit on cozy couches and can sample from small bowls full of sugary treats. There are elevated areas on both ends of the room but for the most part Huba struts across the floor up close to her listeners as she tells her tale, which turns out to be an awkward mix of sexual politics overwhelmed by outlandish fantasy.

Huba's writing style frequently echoes the crass titillation of a letter to Penthouse ("The series of boyfriends that I had selfishly blue balled had never done anything other than some heavy petting.") performed with an off-putting sense of arrogance. The play works best when she's seriously critical of the media's insistence of shaping her story to suit its needs, regardless of the truth, such as in a scene inspired by Dylan's appearance on the Tyra Banks show. Huba has her unnamed narrator repeatedly asked by a model/talk show host why she's doing it and she repeatedly answers that she wants to pay off her student loans. It isn't until she changes her answer to express a yearning for celebrity love and attention that the model/host is satisfied that she's come to the heart of the matter.

Huba does touch on significant topics such as the theory that women have been auctioning off their virginity to the highest bidder since the beginning of time and the moral culture that automatically sees prostitutes as a victims (She doesn't go into the high cost of education, though.) but only lightly. Instead of exploring issues thoroughly, she ventures off into fuzzy symbolism with a scene involving a young boy and her internal organs and cartoonish satire which has world leaders bidding on her as part of complicated deals involving oil, hostages and nuclear weapons. Despite her effort to make a statement, the subject of auctioning off one's virginity and the issues surrounding it are so unusual that what comes out of the playwright's inventiveness never seems like it would be as interesting as a realistic approach.

Also, the title is confusing. There's a character in the narrative named Candy, which can lead one to wrongly believe the title might be referring to her. And frankly, the words Candy Tastes Nice suggests a sex act that has nothing to do with the play.

Photo of Miranda Huba by Michael Weintrob.

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