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Broadway Reviews

Thérèse Raquin

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 29, 2015

Thérèse Raquin by Helen Edmundson, based upon the novel by Émile Zola. Directed by Evan Cabnet. Set design by Beowulf Boritt. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Keith Parham. Sound design and original compositions by Josh Schmidt. Hair & wig design by Tom Watson. Fight Director J. David Brimmer. Dialect Coach Kate Wilson. Cast: Keira Knightley, Gabriel Ebert, Matt Ryan, and Judith Light, with David Patrick Kelly, Jeff Still, Mary Wiseman, Glynis Bell, Alex Mickiewicz, Sara Topham, Ray Virta.
Theatre: Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Limited engagement: Through January 3, 2016
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes, including one intermission

Matt Ryan and Keira Knightley
Photo by Joan Marcus

You are keenly aware of water's role as both giver and taker of life across every moment of Roundabout's new version of Thérèse Raquin at Studio 54. It's not just that a teeming pool consumes the entire upstage area, though that is indeed the case. But the very air itself is suffused with it, so that no matter where you look, it's as though you're peering into or out of its murky expanse. What you see may be reflected or distorted by the waves, but you ignore the inherent reality of it at your peril.

The motif of Beowulf Boritt's simple but transfixing set extends also to the backdrop, which in its smudgy and cheerless grey strokes recalls Monet's Impressionism at its most elemental. It's a fitting metaphor for Evan Cabnet's production, too. In taking on Helen Edmundson's new adaptation of Émile Zola's 1867 novel, Cabnet emphasizes both the richness and the hopelessness of life, to show that although there may be two sides to every story, they both ultimately lead to the same place. And when they're driven by the likes of sin, immorality, or (if you prefer) provable crime, the destination is rarely anywhere good.

Such bleakness—which also fittingly manifests itself in Jane Greenwood's suffocating but muted costumes, Keith Parham's prison-institutional lighting, and Josh Schmidt's haunting original music—adds another level of faithfulness to the already reverent script. Edmundson (whose previous Broadway writing credit was Coram Boy eight years ago) has crafted a solid, blow-by-blow translation of the novel that captures its relentless spirit as well as its plot, and the result is a fine theatre piece that stumbles only because, on a few crucial occasions, it does not go far enough.

The main story, though, remains delicious in its evocation of forbidden (or misguided?) love. Camille Raquin (Gabriel Ebert) and his cousin Thérèse (Keira Knightley) were raised together by Camille's mother after the death of Thérèse's parents. Madame Raquin (Judith Light) decides, once the two are of legitimate age, that it's best they marry. Thérèse, alas, is not in love with the sickly Camille, whom she sees as suppressing her emotional potential. So when he moves the family from a tiny village on the Seine to Paris, where he'll work in an office and she'll run a hat shop, for her it's another wall and not legitimate freedom.

Gabriel Ebert, Matt Ryan and Keira Knightley
Photo by Joan Marcus

She gets a taste of the latter, however, when Camille invites to his weekly domino game a childhood acquaintance named Laurent (Matt Ryan). A handsome, failed artist whose commanding but brooding manner strikes a marked contrast to Camille's hunched-over-and-coughing visage, Laurent does not need long to become a savior in both Thérèse's bed and heart. But when Laurent's work requires him to end his daily trysts in Thérèse's bedroom, the pair fears they'll rot from the separation. That means just one thing: Camille has to go.

It may not be a complex tale, but it doesn't need to be, and that Edmundson makes the second half, a much more internal and suggestive rendering in which Thérèse and Laurent struggle to live with the guilt-infecting consequences of their decisions (and rekindle their affair) while under attack from what could well be shades from beyond, just as compelling as the first speaks well of how serious and committed she's been with this assignment. Yet she and Cabnet have also washed over everything with a clear-eyed naturalism that doesn't allow otherworldly spooking to substitute for genuine feeling or terror. Perhaps the scariest part of the play is just how real this world always is to the characters: No matter what they do, it's not something they can ever truly escape.

Where Edmundson falters is in conveying the extent of their passions. They've scarcely met and exchanged pregnant glances before Thérèse and Laurent are off on their torrid fling, which is an unconvincing compression of the action. It's as if we're intended to accept that Laurent's innate smolder is sufficient for catapulting four people into this chaos, and I'm not sure it is. Edmundson establishes mostly through supposition that Thérèse is stifled and Laurent is her free-wheeling cure, but we don't see enough of them either alone or together to make those judgments for ourselves. If, as seems to be the case, we're to view things as if from behind Thérèse's eyes, Camille and Madame appear too caring for us to believe much has been lost.

If this is the case, most of Knightley's approach does not make much sense. Don't misunderstand: She dives into Thérèse with a terrifying intensity, projecting from her first seconds onstage the burned-out despondency the woman feels at being forced into a relationship with a man she can't stand. Later, as required, she adjusts her focus to develop that same base trait into erotic abandon and eventually blood-coursing fear. It's detailed, complete work that carves out a sweeping journey, with no seams that I could detect along the way.

Keira Knightley and Judith Light
Photo by Joan Marcus

But if Thérèse is the heroine of her own tragedy, she keeps her own worthiness of being so too locked away to do any good. We need to see why this woman forces her way out of one cage and into another, what she sees in herself that she's compelled to keep hidden. And that doesn't come through. Knightley is best known as the fierce-willed Elizabeth Swann in Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and more of that take-charge persona would enhance—and, more important, explain—what is otherwise an impressive technical, if not probing, performance.

The other actors have easier tasks, and meet their challenges more readily. Ryan's blend of smokiness, rage, and need imbues Laurent with the proper air of dangerous mystery, and Ebert makes Camille exactly the kind of simpering nonentity Thérèse views, not worrying at all about making him likable to us. As Camille's friends, Jeff Still, David Patrick Kelly, and Mary Wiseman correctly reflect the broader battle of the sexes that mirrors the one between the three leads, but don't build little on their characters' utilitarian functionality.

Light shows how it should be done, barreling on with a razor-edged portrayal of perhaps the ultimate woman who cannot be kept down. Madame suffers even more than Thérèse—she spends most of the second act confined to a wheelchair—but Light keeps the flames burning throughout, demonstrating that Madame is the only one who can or will define herself. In doing so, she lets Madame transcend the expectations of the age and the people around her and become greater even as she's smothered as well.

We come to know Madame intimately from the inside out, which only highlights what we need but don't always receive elsewhere. Edmundson has done Zola proud in some ways (more so than the 2001 David Thompson–Harry Connick, Jr. musicalization of his novel, Thou Shalt Not), but her play would attain the next level of accomplishment if she embodied the ideals of both him and his title character more fully. The broad strokes are here for a transporting portrait, but what supports them needs to plunge us into the depths and not water down all the essential heat.

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