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theatre review

Belleville is about a young couple, played by Allan Hawco and Christine Horne, living a lonely, expatriate life in Paris.Guntar Kravis

How do you measure the success of a night at the theatre? If you do it in heartbeats-per-minute, then the Company Theatre's (in association with Canadian Stage) unnerving production of Belleville starring Allan Hawco is the most successful to premiere in Toronto so far this season.

American playwright Amy Herzog's chilling play concerns a young couple living a lonely, expatriate life in a claustrophobic apartment in Paris – though why depends on who you ask. Zack (Hawco) tells his landlord Alioune that he gave up a residency in the United States because his wife desperately wanted to live in the City of Lights; Abby (Christine Horne), however, says she reluctantly moved away from her family and across the Atlantic so Zack could take up a job at Doctors Without Borders.

That there is a distance between Zack and Abby's perceptions is immediately clear from the opening scene: Abby comes home early after the yoga class she teaches is unexpectedly cancelled to find her husband in the bedroom watching pornography instead of at work.

"You're having a slightly Victorian reaction," Zack says, in response to Abby's extreme unease at this discovery. You may be inclined to agree – until the play gradually makes you equally uneasy.

Hawco, making his long-awaited return to the Toronto stage after years of being too busy starring in and producing CBC's Republic of Doyle, is the draw for Belleville. But it's two women involved who will get your heart racing once you're in the theatre.

The first is Amy Herzog, a playwright on the up-and-up and now being discovered north of the border. (Her play 4000 Miles is currently at the Centaur Theatre in Montreal – and was just extended.) With Belleville, she's penned a script that in tone and tension harkens back to an age of literate stage thrillers such as Patrick Hamilton's Gas Light. (If I'm not mistaken, Hawco's constant fiddling with the lights in the living room is an homage to that 1938 play that gave us the term "gaslighting" for a particular form of psychological abuse.)

Herzog's craft in building an atmosphere of isolation in an ever-connected world is impressive; cell phones have destroyed many of the great tropes of horror, but she finds a way to make one scene involving a smartphone the most terrifying of all.

The script's pleasures do go beyond the visceral – in Abby, in particular, Herzog has perfectly captured a familiar type of North American, the overeducated, underemployed variety. In withdrawal as she comes off an antidepressant she started taking five years earlier after the much-referenced death of her mother, Abby is just a wonderfully rich character – and the actress-turned-yoga teacher seems almost written for Christine Horne, a slim Hitchcock blonde in a pixie haircut who does the best work I've seen from her here. She gets Abby's sense of superiority masquerading as sensitivity just right – but also nails her more admirable qualities. She's great in her ropey physicality, too, especially when drunk out of her wits and wielding a kitchen knife in a bit that had me covering my eyes.

Hawco is less varied in his performance, maintaining a strained expression as Zack, as if he is at the end of the rope dealing with a wife who remains unhappy no matter what he does and about to snap; his wide-eyed, distant look turns out to be a mask for panic, however.

I do have a complaint about his performance. The Company Theatre, which Hawco co-founded with Philip Riccio, has been known for its muscular production of contemporary plays, all until now written by men. Jason Byrne, an Irish director who pushes actors to follow impulses rather than set blocking, has been in charge of many of the best, most boisterous productions – and he is at the helm again here.

In this case, however, Hawco could stand to be reined in – as he is constantly throwing bags on the floor, knocking books off shelves and tossing a coffee across the room. These theatrical gestures often puncture the tension in a production otherwise carefully calibrated. Not enough to deflate it, mind you – as I'm still a little jumpy.

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